The Oldboy remake is second-fiddle in nearly every way to its South Korean inspiration (save performances).
Spike Lee's Oldboy follows advertising executive Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin), who after a night of heavy drinking, awakens inside a locked hotel room. For two decades, Doucett remains held inside the cell with no knowledge of his captors, the reason behind his imprisonment, or whether he'll see freedom again. In the intervening time, Doucett is blamed for the death of his wife by authorities who presume he is either dead or long gone. Unable to defend himself against the allegations, much less reveal that he is being held against his will, Doucett passes the time training and pouring over news reports in the hopes that someday he'll be able to seek revenge for the crimes against his family and reconnect with his since orphaned daughter.
After a full twenty years, Doucett is abruptly released and provided with thousands in cash to help him get back on his feet. In an effort to determine a purpose for the abduction, the former captive seeks out his best friend, Chucky (Michael Imperioli) and accepts help from a local clinician assistant, Marie (Elizabeth Olsen). However, with every secret that Doucett uncovers, he becomes increasingly aware that his former captors are still watching - but for what purpose?
For viewers that do not know the history behind Spike Lee's Oldboy, the 2013 film is an American remake of the cult-classic 2003 South Korean film of the same name, directed by Chan-wook Park (which was derived from a manga story by Nobuaki Minegishi and Garon Tsuchiya). Over the last ten years Park's Oldboy has grown increasingly popular around the globe and, unfortunately, Lee's remake is little more than an Americanized adaptation, swapping out English-speaking Hollywood actors for the original subtitled (or dubbed) Korean performers - while failing to improve upon any of the original film's plot twists, visual aesthetic, or action set pieces. Nevertheless, the Oldboy story is still a fascinating (not to mention twisted) one, and Lee, along with screenwriter Mark Protosevich (I Am Legend), only makes minor changes to the main narrative arc - expanding the protagonist's imprisonment from 15 to 20 years, among other small tweaks.
At 104 minutes, the American remake is a full 16 minutes shorter than Park's Oldboy. The result is a slightly more straightforward film that forgoes some of the original movie's stranger moments (i.e. octopus) in order to keep the mystery-thriller plot moving without too many detours that might be distracting to a mainstream western audience. Yet, the shortened runtime also forces Lee to rush key encounters, which are not always given enough time and space to develop, as well as forgoing meaningful insight or updates to the setting and its primary characters. To compensate, Oldboy 2013 utilizes several on-the-nose exposition dumps, where subtly is abandoned in favor of quickly explaining the unfolding situation to viewers who might have trouble keeping up - especially in the third act.
Aside from its story, Park's Oldboy is also celebrated for its haunting visuals and iconic one-take hallway fight that lasts three full minutes - neither of which are improved upon in the remake. Lee delivers competent substitutes, but instead of impassioned filmmaking choices, much of the Oldboy remake comes across as a checklist of key elements that needed to be incorporated (and subsequently translated for an American setting). In particular, even though the hallway fight offers some exciting and cringe-inducing action, it's somewhat at odds with the rest of the film (eastern culture is mostly just window dressing this time), included because of its importance to the original, but without much inspired or memorable iteration in the actual sequence.
The biggest selling point of the film, and the main reason that it's still recommendable, is a stable of well-known acting talents that will likely make this version of the Oldboy storyline more palatable to certain western viewers. Despite the rigors of the material, Josh Brolin doesn't break a lot of new ground as the tortured Joe Doucett, mostly riffing on similar quiet-but-deadly types that he's played before. Still, even though he doesn't raise the bar, the actor is a good fit for the character and delivers in several challenging moments that, without his full commitment and talent, could have drastically hurt the film's emotional punch.
Similarly, Samuel L. Jackson doesn't step too far outside of his usual comfort zone (aside from an askew yellow mohawk) but is at the center of several twisted moments that will keep audiences squirming. Instead of the more candid depiction of The Captor (as originally portrayed by Yoo Ji-tae), Sharlto Copley's take is much more eccentric - presenting a twisted cartoon character that will, dependent on the viewer, either be the highlight of Lee's Oldboy or an eye-rolling inclusion from start to finish. Fortunately, up-and-comer Elizabeth Olsen keeps any of the more outlandish personalities grounded with a superb supporting performance that injects much-needed life and empathy into a film filled to the brim by violent and (intentionally) hollow men.
Despite the updated American setting and full decade since Park's Oldboy, Lee includes very few fresh ideas - failing to build any meaningful or thoughtful additions onto an already strong foundation. As a result, moviegoers who are off-put by subtitled foreign films will now have opportunity to enjoy the Oldboy story competently brought to life with familiar Hollywood faces. Understandably, Lee's version could make for a more immersive and relatable experience for certain audience members in the West - happily exposing more people to the creative and controversial story. Nevertheless, the Oldboy remake is second-fiddle in nearly every way to its South Korean inspiration (save performances) - and for anyone who has seen the original, this version will come across as a watered-down photocopy.
Oldboy runs 104 minutes and is Rated R for strong brutal violence, disturbing images, some graphic sexuality and nudity, and language. Now playing in theaters.
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For an in-depth discussion of the film by the Screen Rant editors check back soon for our Oldboy episode of the SR Underground podcast.
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