Oldboy Review

For a remake, Spike Lee's Oldboy does some intriguing and clever things, but still makes a few too many missteps for fans of the original.

Few films offer the mind shattering shock and horror that Park Chab-wook’s 2003 South Korean revenge mystery Oldboy delivered when it first hit the scene. Though many would prefer it to stay untouched, any film that was not produced within the big studio system that has as much clout as Oldboy, was going to get a remake at one point or another. Helmed by Spike Lee, the American version of the tale has the strange distinction of portraying the same exact story, while somehow being a completely different film; and that’s a good thing. Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin), is not a good man. He’s an alcoholic, a womanizer, a liar; an all around sleaze ball. After blowing the sales opportunity of a lifetime by succumbing to his own conceited scumbag nature, Joe goes on an epic bender; vomiting in the streets, accosting street vendors, looking to buy an insignificant gift for his infant daughter’s birthday party that he’s drinking himself through. When he wakes up though, he finds himself alone in a strange little hotel room; he’s locked inside there for the next twenty years. During his unwanted stay, Joe is accused of murdering his ex-wife, a fact he learns through the few TV stations pumped into his low-rent prison cell. Vowing to escape and find his daughter, Joe begins making a list of all the people he thinks he has wronged in the past and starts a long diary of letters he hopes to share with his daughter when he finds her. Then, after twenty years, Joe is let go with no explanation. Drugged by his captors, he is stuffed into a traveling trunk, and set down in a large field. He’s left with money, a phone and the letters he wrote to his daughter. When the phone finally rings, the man who took away Joe’s life is on the other end with a proposition that will answer all Joe’s questions, including the location of his daughter; but Joe has to figure out why he was locked up for himself, and if he doesn’t, the truth will never be known. Historically, I’m a very cynical person. Growing up, I was on the soap box when classic works of art (historical or modern) were placed on what I considered to be a chopping block, being trotted out to the masses, having its balls cut off for the sake of making money, or for the simple reason of, “because we can.” Maybe it is the fact that I think the original Oldboy needs to still be seen by more people, but I actually felt it could have a fantastic translation in an American re-do. What’s put out into theaters definitely is more lukewarm in terms of how good it is. There are so many smart changes made in this version, but there are also heaps of strange missteps.
 When most people talk about Oldboy, they usually talk about three different things: An octopus, a hallway and the ending. For those familiar with the film, you know what that all means, but I think most people tend to skip over the stylistic mystery of the film. This version takes the audience into a longer period of the protagonist’s stay in his hotel room prison that digs deep into the surrealistic corners of the story’s world. The twisted mangled face that adorned the wall in the first film is replaced by the unsettling smiling face of a bell boy ripped straight the nightmarish visage of a 1940s L.A. luxury building, as envisioned by Tales From the Crypt. It’s just a small piece in a speck of time in this twisted tale, showing that everyone involved in making the film were not just thinking about, an octopus, a hallway and the ending. Still, it is hard not to hold this work up to the original and just make comparisons. That is a hard habit to break; not holding something in its own light and objectively viewing it. If anything, what this version does better is the dumpling search. In everything the 2013 Oldboy does, it does so explicitly and bluntly; except for THAT montage, which ironically, is the only thing the original movie does do bluntly in explanation. Most people will be worried that maybe the film’s unthinkable outcome is too much for sensitive American audiences to take. Without ruining the fun for those who still don’t know the ending, I can only say that this version actually ramps up the sickness level, but changes part of the resolution. Still, they don’t cancel each other out. The final deed performed by the protagonist in the original does not exist here, and that is the one thing I do have an issue with. This version of the film is much more a story of redemption, where the original was about revenge. That being said, the final gesture on part of the protagonist means so much more than what is presented this time around. Yes, I don’t want to watch a shot by shot remake, but I really think that act seals up the story, where this time around, the events feel bit more loosely tied up. In many ways, Josh Brolin perfectly fits this role, on paper. He’s dark, brooding, a little unhinged at times, but something never fully clicks. In the one iconic scene that is re-imagined from the original film, Brolin comes off stiff, like a cardboard cutout being thrown around the room, and that is all before he has a knife stuck in his back. Conversely, Sharlto Copely as the film’s antagonist is manically deranged in a neat and foppish package. While everyone’s portrayal differs form the original characters’, Copely truly crafted a new persona for his portrayal that far over reaches the dementia of his South Korean counterpart. When all is said and done, Copely’s villain will be talked about just as much as everything else in Oldboy’s history.