Release Date: November 27, 2013
Director: Spike Lee
MPAA Rating: R
Film Pulse Score: 7.5/10
Remakes, reboots, a reimagining. No matter how you spin it whenever a remake is brought up a collective groan can be heard across the globe that is universally followed by one question. Why? In order to reach a new audience directors like Michael Haneke and George Sluizer have made the original foreign language version and the English language version of their films. David Cronenberg gave The Fly a more modern and grim feel. Chuck Russell made The Blob terrifying. Christopher Nolan reinvigorated a presumed stagnant franchise. While seemingly lacking any creative integrity reboots and remakes usually endeavor to bring something new to the table as opposed to making a quick buck based on name recognition only. However, when you touch upon a film that is held with such high regard it no longer becomes why but what’s the point. Fortunately Spike Lee never stopped to ask that question when he started filming his solid remake of the classic revenge thriller Oldboy.
When we first meet Joe Doucett he proves to be a real prick. He’s an absent father, a drunk, a womanizer and a man whose professional career appears to be going down the toilet. One drunken night he goes from losing a client to getting stuck in the rain to passing out in his own puke. The man is in dire straits. Then in the blink of eye he vanishes and awakens in a hotel-like room. Never learning who put him there in the first place or why, Joe insufferably spends the next twenty years in solitary confinement. After being inexplicably released from his personal hell, Joe finds a new world awaits him but right now the only thing that matters is to find the people responsible and to make them pay dearly.
On initial viewing Chan-wook Park’s original was a fantastic film; however, with age and a repeat viewing it doesn’t seem to be as good as it was seeing it the first time. I saw the film ten years ago, loved it and did not see it again until recently. In the years that passed the only things I could recall from the original film were the corridor fight, Min-sik Choi’s performance and the gut-wrenching twist. It is still very good but for this viewer it did lose some of its luster. The remake, written by Mark Protosevich, is based on Park’s screenplay and infuses a few elements from the original manga. There would be no point to this remake if were handled like say Gus Van Sant’s ill-advised shot-for-shot remake of Psycho. Lee’s film wisely doesn’t try to match the original beat-for-beat. Familiar elements are presented but done in a new way that in many cases proves to be better handled than the original. Motivations are less murky and actions seem more plausible. Fans can rest easy as this film is very much respectful of the original source material.
As good as Josh Brolin is there aren’t many actors who can even come close to matching Min-sik Cho’s performance in the original. In this incarnation of Oldboy Brolin works and works well. He is like a pitbull who will go through anyone that stands in his way. About the only issue was that it could be argued that he didn’t go far enough in regards to certain revelations. Without even spoiling anything, Cho was mind-blowing in the same scene. One thing for sure though is that Brolin owns the corridor fight sequence and it’s a doozey. Elizabeth Olsen stars as Marie, a volunteer nurse Joe encounters who helps him solve this mystery. She is very good in the role and her involvement in Joe’s life seems more natural as opposed to the original’s. Sharlto Copley stars as Adrian, a man who may have the key to unlocking why Joe was imprisoned. Copley is effectively twisted and manic and you may say over the top on occasion. As written here the character proves to be far more complex and twisted than in the original. Samuel L. Jackson also stars as Chaney, a man who may have a connection to Joe’s imprisonment. Overall, performances are strong and the characters while the same have enough subtle differences from the original to stand on their own.
This is easily Spike Lee’s best mainstream feature film, his previous efforts being Inside Man and Miracle at St. Anna. Knowing that he is remaking a well known film he has clearly set out to make the story his own. He doesn’t self-indulge like some directors would but instead makes a film that trusts in its story and truly stands on its own two feet. Sadly because this is a remake and having seen the original there weren’t any real surprises in this film. If this was the first it’s very likely it would have scored even higher. Since the original film was based on a manga there is always room for a new take on the material. This could have easily turned out poorly but fortunately this is a solid remake with a refreshing new look at a classic tale of vengeance. Put your love of the original aside and give this one a chance and if this is the first time you are seeing the material you can’t go wrong either way.