Director : Spike Lee
Cast Headliners: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, Sharlto Copley, Samuel L Jackson
Original Release Date: November 27th, 2013
Remake films are tricky business. It is a careful balancing act. The elements which made the original so great have to be preserved, while also something fresh should be included to avoid it being a simple carbon copy of its source. The matter is made even more difficult when the source film is from another country, like in this case of Oldboy where it was a South Korean film originally based on a Japanese manga. The story of Oldboy has now travelled between two mediums and three cultures, and because of this a point of concern for this version may be that it would turn out as a train wreck of mediocrity. I can say, as a massive fan of Park Chan-wook’s 2003 original that it could have turned out much worse. That’s in a “good way.”
Josh Brolin plays the protagonist Joe Doucett, an advertising executive. His life isn’t exactly the best with an venomous relationship with his wife and making some mistakes in his profession. One such mistake sets him over the edge, and he gets incredibly drunk. Now, I can say Brolin is one of the best aspects of the movie as Joe. His character nearly completely transforms over the course of the plot. However, the acting during these drunken scenes felt very exaggerated. This segment dragged on for a bit too long. The wonky dialogue reared its head in not just this portion. It is a shame, since it is about a halfway split between quality writing and “zany” writing. I would also like to point out that Joe changes from a more interesting seedy character into…. a generic angry action hero. More on that in a moment.
In many ways Oldboy can be said to be a character study of Joe. The events of that night lead to the main crux of the film that being the fact that he is mysteriously locked in a hotel-like prison for 20 years with only cereal and Chinese dumplings to eat. This part, as the original, is incredible. Some of the finest bits of the film come from Joe’s descent into madness. It is like a dark twisted version of The Count of Monte Cristo, and with his attempted escape that element comes to mind more than the original Korean film. He has literally no contact for years, which makes this section extremely emotional. I would call it a series of great montages. Director Spike Lee made the smart choice to not directly use the scenes from the original, and instead create new equally dark and surreal imagery.
His time in his prison shapes Joe into something new. He submits to his isolation at first but soon forges himself into a strong warrior with a mission of revenge. Soon, he is freed. But his adventure only just started. I did enjoy the fact that there are a few parallels and references to the original film that I infer to be meant specifically for fans of the original. For example, to say one, there is no “octopus scene” here, but there is an octopus. There are also some scenes omitted or occasionally reworked to negative effect. One action sequence copied from the original is the “hammer fight”. But where that fight took place in a single hallway and was beautifully shot in real time, a cinematic achievement, this version uses many special effects and takes place across a few floors of the facility where Joe breaks into. It feels very much like the blockbuster “America” version, and this is not the only other time where this takes place.
However, some other changes enhance the film over its source. There are additions to the narrative which show how certain things happened or how people got to places. It would also take much to explain, but the motivation of the villain receives some changes (once again with an element of American larger-than-life exaggeration) which actually make it interesting in its own way. I will say that Sharlto Copley is great as always in his villain role, and also Samuel L Jackson gives a classic SLJ villian performance as well. His use of his favorite “m word” is appropriate given the dark and gritty style of the film. I also think Joe’s soon-ally Marie (Elizabeth Olsen) gets more depth to her than the Korean version. She is a compassion contrasted to Joe’s brute force. Ironic that where Marie has a bit more to here, Joe is largely just an angry, though this is what Brolin does best, guy with a grudge.
There are issues with some of the translation of scenes, and objectively with some of the pacing and dialogue. But these are complimented with a great dark tone, a twisting narrative every bit as engaging as the original, and some bloody action. A word to describe it would be crazy. Sometimes, it’s a bit too all over the place. There were times when the tone jumped from pure black to black comedy; perhaps a trademark of Spike Lee but this isn’t always the place for it. I also want to mention that where the original had some deep moral messages and introspections, this version eschews that mostly. It’s become a straightforward thriller but is worth it for Josh Brolin , the action, and those plot elements which still carry through. In my opinion, far from bad if a bit flawed. 7.45 out of 10