Park Chan-wook’s 2003 Korean revenge thriller Oldboy is, for reasons I won’t bore you with now, a very important film in my life. There’s been talk of a US remake of it basically ever since it first made a splash almost a decade ago. Originally Fast & Furious director Justin Lin was going to take a shot at it, then it was briefly rumoured to be a potential project for Steven Spielberg and Will Smith. Talk of that none-more A-list pairing taking on the story, despite their talents, inevitably led to worries that Oldboy USA would be a watered down, mainstream Hollywood version of the very dark story. The project dropped off the radar for a while before resurfacing in 2011 with Spike Lee attached as the director. This was actually a good sign, not only is Lee capable of making very good films, he’s uncompromising, and not going to just churn out a studio hack-job.
Oldboy 2013 does score some points then for trying, the script by Mark Protosevich (Poseidon, I am Legend) attempts to keep in most of the brutal and disturbing elements of the original, and in a couple of cases, top them. The story is also very faithful, the protagonist, now named Joe (Josh Brolin) is a bad father who’s kidnapped after a night of heavy drinking, and imprisoned in a motel-room type cell for twenty years (five more than the original), and while there, he’s framed for the murder of his ex-wife.
The film actually takes quite a while in setting itself up and doesn’t draw the audience in well. Brolin puts some effort in to the character, committing to degrading drunken scenes and visibly losing weight as a result of his solo training regime, but somehow doesn’t make him truly feel like a changed man when he is finally released. He’s big and thuggish before and after, and doesn’t appear particularly aged. If Brolin takes the antihero role a little too seriously though, the opposite can be said for Sharlto Copley as the villain. He has screen presence but undermines it whenever he opens his mouth. I seriously have no idea what he was aiming for with his voice here but’s it’s just offputtingly bizarre, like he’s attempting to effeminately mock someone who has a posh British accent, and I believe his actual character is supposed to be an American. The primary supporting roles are similarly mismatched in their pitching, with Elizabeth Olsen making little impression in her role as a young nurse and former addict, while Samuel L Jackson (re-teaming with Lee for the first time in over 20 years) takes his profanity spewing, blonde-mohawk sporting jailer into camp territory. Only Sopranos star Michael Imperioli, as Joe’s best friend, fits the overall tone.
Spike Lee films the whole thing in a way that’s relentlessly, and in some ways appropriately grim, but for the most part lacks the slick style that Park Chan-wook brought to the story. He attempts a few audacious camera moves here and there, but Lee’s rarely felt so anonymous a director. One of the original’s most memorable set pieces, a single take fight scene in which the protagonist battles a host of bad guys armed with a hammer, is recreated here. Lee tries to one-up Park by having it take place over two storeys, and while impressive, the scene would feel much more so if it weren’t so clearly copying something that’s been done before.
This isn’t the problem with all of Oldboy mark II however, as the key plot developments that occur later are handled far less effectively. The film will obviously have more power to a viewer unfamiliar with the story’s twists, but I can’t imagine it ever feeling as devastating as Park’s film had the potential to be. It’s handicapped further by the few alterations it makes to the blueprint, with Protosevich boldly trying to subvert Hollywood tradition and make it even more disturbing than the original, but ending up just making it more absurd. Protosevich also oddly does away with one of the more important elements of the original plan, which makes the actions of Elizabeth Olsen’s character far less convincing. He comes up with a revenge-torture scene of his own but the way Lee directs it just comes across as wince-inducing nasty rather than the blackly humorous, Vivaldi sound-tracked version in Park’s film.
There are a couple of nice little touches Oldboy 2.0 adds in, mainly in Joe’s cell (the fate of a family of mice he finds), but it also keeps in some of the more Asian characteristics, such as Joe being only fed fried dumplings (maybe Big Macs would have been a more fitting American choice?).
Now I am aware that Spike Lee’s cut of this film ran considerably longer than this theatrical one, which was taken out of his hands a cut down by the producers. I’m never a fan of that sort of thing and would of course have much rather seen the full version, which I can imagine clears up a few of the issues but still wouldn’t come remotely close to the original, which, as usual, remains most definitely the version of Oldboy you should see.