Remaking Oldboy is an incredibly bold move. Given that the original Oldboy (2003) is a film distinctive of its culture due to its grim method of tackling sadistic violence and extremely twisted themes. Never before have I seen an American remake of a South Korean film as it is territory no one has ever entered before, and since remakes are so rare in success this is perhaps a good thing. Interestingly enough it's African-American filmmaker Spike Lee tackling such an ambitious project. It's an unconventional outing for him as he traditionally makes low-budget films based around the struggles of African-Americans while Oldboy is a larger-budgeted production which seems to carry mainstream connotations. But since Spike Lee is a man passionate about maintaining cultural relevance as a filmmaker, I figured that he would have a sense of how to be respectful to Park Chan-wook's piece.
Oldboy is a film which loses much of its cinematic power before the film even begins. Given that the original Oldboy had such an unpredictable story with unforgettable twists, the shock value of that film would be impossible to remaster since most viewers would be too familiar with it the original to find any kind of strength in the story's impact. It takes newcomers to embrace the full effect of the film's intentions, but it still remains a remake nonetheless. Due to its production context, the remake of Oldboy becomes about the chase and not the catch. The chase can prove quite entertaining at times, but ultimately the catch does not justify it all.
Oldboy works puts a lot of work into characterization into protagonist Joseph "Joe" Doucett. Though it is fairly basic, the intro characterizes the protagonist as a standard asshole who is carelessly self-obsessive in every facet of his personal life. There is a big turnaround in the scene where we see him befriending a stray mouse, creating a throwback to Frank Darabont's adaptation of Stephen King's The Green Mile (1999). At first glance I considered this thinly-veiled in derivation, but soon enough it really struck an emotional chord with me. This scene provides a really sensitive side to Joe Doucett, showing him in such a desperate state of emotion that he shows the humanity he has denied the world for so long. After caring for the mouse until it gives birth only to find that the mouse is soon taken from him to be killed and served to him, we see him break down to an all new emotional low point. This is his most vulnerable point in the film, and perhaps the first time audiences will feel something for him. I certainly did, and so when he began to change his physical form and defy his alcoholism there was a lot of power behind his actions. Oldboy definitely knows how to make a protagonist worth rooting for.
However, Spike Lee's Joe Doucett is a ultimately a sub-par replacement for Park Chan-wook's Oh-Dae Sue, primarily because Joe Doucett doesn't seem all that savage as he develops. We see the main gaining ambition and self-respect as well as humanity, but this isn't in tune with the original. Oh Dae-sue becomes consumed by his obsession with vengeance, devolving into an almost primitive beast before turning emotionally void. Spike Lee's vision spends too much time sympathizing with the protagonist to make him the raw product of anger that Park Chan-wook did, removing the emotional intensity from the material. Oldboy's efforts to characterize its protagonist ultimately humanize him too much, and this is the one film where this shouldn't be done. Since Oldboy lacks the iconic scene in which the protagonist eats a live octopus, his savagery is obviously far from being what it should. Since it is easier to sympathise with the protagonist than to be shocked with his transformation, he very much risks becoming a standardized Hollywood action hero. When the film reaches its most distinctive action scene, this is a prophecy which is ultimately fulfilled.
One scene that needs to be critiqued is Spike Lee's version of the most iconic scene from the original Oldboy: the Hallway fight scene. The original is a masterpiece of filmmaking; a product of remarkable choreography and stunning cinematography which is remarkably achieved over the course of a singular take. Spike Lee's version of this scene certainly comes with some badass choreography and a mostly-effective achievement of the single-take technique. Alas, it still finds ways to come up short. Recreating such a scene is an incredible undertaking, and Spike Lee aims to make his adaptation of it his own while still being true to the original. In the process, he creates too many distractions to embrace it all as natural. It starts with the context of the scene; the original Oldboy occured within a singular tight hallway where the size of the room lined up Oh Dae-su's enemies in front of each other to prevent them from all swarming him at once. Jou Doucett fights his enemies in a warehouse which is far more open, lacking the same feeling of confinement. The shot isn't untouched; it removes certain frames to make the action more effective rather than relying solely on the choreography as Park-Chan Wook did. And though Jou Doucett takes hits, he is physically impenetrable to them and has wood broken on him without any physical response on multiple occasions. Oh Dae-su was injured and knocked down multiple times, but he kept going even in a clearly weakened state. Park Chan-wook used a more emotionally rich musical score while Spike Lee's is an adrenaline-pumping one, neglecting any emotional heft solely for action value. And last of all, Park Chan-wook's shot was a smooth moving and clear one while Spike Lee's plays out behind a wire fence which blocks portions of the visual experience, particularly when the camera insists on moving alongside it. It was frustrating enough to watch the climactic boxing match in Undisputed (2002) from behind bars, but in a film which aims for a higher literary standard this is far less impressive. The hallway fight scene in Spike Lee's Oldboy has its entertaining merits, but succumbs to the same Hollywood conventions that weaken the protagonist as well as some general technical faults which seem unconsidered.
Also, writer Mark Protosevich's alterations of the original story comes to be too much of burden when the film concludes. In treatment of the iconic plot twist, Oldboy ruins its characterization of the central antagonist by making alterations. Adrian Doyle Price never had an incestuous relationship with his sister, rather she was sleeping with their father. Instead of getting vengeance for exposing a complicated brother-sister incest, it completely changes path with the implementation of a patriarchal incest. Adrian Doyle Price is not getting vengeance for having someone drive his sister to suicide, he is doing it because it drove his father insane and had him try to kill the entire family. Rather than responding to a complicated love affair, Adrian Doyle Price seems to be motivated by his family's honour more than a descent into his own madness. Considering that Park Chan-wook's version of the character displayed the full effect of what vengeful obsession can do to a character, the fact that Spike Lee's version has motivations which are far less personal than class-driven seems very much inappropriate. When this concludes without the use of the original self-bodily mutilation or the protagonist's willing to deny himself the truth, its sentimental conclusion ultimately plays it way too safe to live up to what Spike Lee intended to build towards. Oldboy has an inappropriately anticlimactic ending, lacking the ambiguity and brilliance of the original in lieu of a more conventional option.
How much of Oldboy is the fault of the screenplay or studio cuts is ambiguous, but I will certify my admiration for Spike Lee's work on the project. Even those who don't enjoy Oldboy should appreciate the visual style of the film through the way it manages to use strong cinematography. With a limited assortment of locations, Oldboy manages to capture a truly grim feeling with its monochromatic colour scheme that consistently maintains a shade of grey or dark blue to capture the bleak nature of Joe Doucett's world. And in its attempts to emphasize Joe Doucett's entire identity being confined to the angry limits of his mind, Oldboy makes use of a lot of intense close-up focus to elicit a somewhat claustrophobic feeling at the right moments while bringing natural colour out of its scenery at others. A key part of the imagery is the blood and gore in the film which is mediated to a far lesser extent than Park Chan-wook's vision, though it still makes enough of a grim impact to reflect the edgy ambitions of the film. And another strong thing Oldboy captures is a clear perspective of the protagonist's face so that Josh Brolin's performance does not go unrealized.
Josh Brolin makes a solid protagonist in Oldboy. Though his celebrity status lacks the everyman nature supplied by Cho Min-sik in the original role, Josh Brolin is not an overly glamourized celebrity. He is a legitimate actor who has proven to tackle some edgy material on multiple occasions, and Spike Lee's Oldboy is a clear cut example of that. In portraying Joseph "Joe" Doucett, Josh Brolin develops the character at an appropriately progressive rate throughout the story. He starts by capturing him as an egotistical and self-obsessed man before breaking down his exterior to cling onto the remains of his humanity. From there he builds himself up again until he shines with a remorseless iron edge; a fearsome demeanour that is driven by pure resentment and desire for retribution. The material leaves him to border on the edge of being a generic action hero at times, but the fact that Josh Brolin ensures that Joseph Doucett finds pleasure in exacting violence against his enemies empowers it above this. The screenplay for Oldboy messes with the character that Joe Doucett really should have become, but Josh Brolin's firm dedication offers an empowering performance which boasts his strength in conducting his character's emotions and an extremely impressive dedication to the warehouse fight scene.
Elizabeth Olsen contributes a strong supporting effort. While the protagonist is a product of his own hatred, Elizabeth Olsen's character is one who adds a contrasting feeling through her genuinely sympathetic nature and gentle line delivery. She knows how to channel intensity in the right moments, but she maintains a kind-hearted nature the entire time which sparks an affectionate chemistry with Josh Brolin. The two create an engaging romantic affair for the story which is far more genuine than in the standard drama based on the fact that they cater to each other's contrasting personalities well and help to give peace of mind to each other in the harsh territory of the world around them. Elizabeth Olsen works to lighten the mood in Oldboy at the right moment, and her presence is a truly engaging one.
Sharlto Copley is also a strong presence. Known in Hollywood for his collaborations with Neil Blomkamp above all else, Sharlto Copley takes a step back in Oldboy and puts himself into a more character-oriented role. It's hard to appreciate the character all that much considering the large number of changes made from the original character in Park Chan-wook's film, but Sharlto Copley has no problem capturing the sophisticated line delivery of the character and using it in a subtle manner of manipulative antagonism. Sharlto Copley's strong talent for consistent line delivery makes him a befitting presence in Oldboy.
Samuel L. Jackson is also a strong presence due to his natural antagonism.
Spike Lee's strong sense of style and some engaging performances from Josh Brolin and Elizabeth Olsen help to make Oldboy a watchable film, but the alteration of key plot points changes the narrative trajectory of the entire film making it pale all too heavily in comparison to the original.
Samuel L Jackson's character should be taken by a lesser known actor. His star power is a distraction. Josh Brolin has all the qualities to be the next Liam Neeson. There is always in need of such kind of role; average middle age man turns action hero, intelligent and resilience. As good as he is, somehow he does not fit the role or the role does not fit him.
As someone who's never seen the original, I'm purely judging this on its own, without comparisons. Looking at it from my point of view, it has a truly messed up story, great style from Spike Lee, and a committed performance from Josh Brolin. However, it can rely on convenience at times, and Sharlto Copley is just awful. That being said, it's actually pretty good.