When it comes to remakes, you have two options: one, watch the original to see what kind of differences there are in the remake; or two, go in with a clean slate and then review the original. A lot of the time we end up watching both versions, sometimes the remake doesn’t live up to the original and ends up disappointing some of us. Regardless of which approach you take Spike Lee‘s Oldboy is just another remake retold through an American perspective. Basically it is uninspired, adding nothing to the memorable experience that was the Park Chan-Wook original.
Oldboy is a tale of revenge and redemption as Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) a sleazy executive sales consultant and lousy father is kidnapped and held against his will in a hotel room with no windows for the better part of 20 years. During this time he is subjected to various psychological tortures like watching news reports that police have charged him with the rape and murder of his ex-wife, watching is daughter grow up without him, having no contact with the outside world except with those who feed the “pets” (those who are held in this facility are commonly referred to as pets). Watching all this transpire, Joe has an epiphany, that if and when he gets out, he will become a better person, and that he vows to find out who did this to him. 20 years later, he is set free, and his mission of finding his daughter and those who imprisoned him begin.
His relatively short journey leads him running into a charitable physician named Marie (Elizabeth Olsen), who oddly enough believes that he was imprisoned for 20 years. But his mission has a deeper meaning, as mysterious phone calls start being made asking him not only who put him into his prison, but why he was let out.
Establishing the reasons for revenge and redemption seemed crucial, but the story itself seemed to fall a part during the duration of Joe’s imprisonment. While the audience gets to see how much time elapsed through various events in the past 20 years, Joe’s physical and psychological changes are inconstant. At first he seemed to be a rather slouchy guy with a nicely rounded beer gut, but as time progresses he develops a need for change, a kind of change that isn’t as clear as originally though of during the scripting phase. I mean the only real change to happen during those 20 years are more to his body than his face, which looks like it hasn’t aged at all.
Joe’s redemption is continuously overshadowed by being driven towards the path of revenge by the mysterious force that locked up in the first place. Sharlto Copley plays that shadowy benefactor that took Joe away from his family and financed his 20 year imprisonment. Copley’s character gives a constant flurry of clues that are released in a timely and strategic manner. One of which would lead him right back to the hotel and of course the epic one shot take of a fight between Joe and the employees of the facility. Gruesome from the start, Joe’s pain knows no bound as he takes on a slew of bad guys wielding an assortment of weapons from knives to 2X4s.
But Oldboy fans know that the film is much more than a gruesome action sequence with a hammer. The obvious nods that were in original like the fact that he was taped, the octopus, the tongue scenes, were added to the retelling, and if you must know, there is a slight twist to the ending. But even with that twist, it doesn’t really add much to Lee’s version.
Which is honestly a bit disappointing. But seeing how it was all set up, it really should come as a surprise. There was just so much emphasis on how Joe’s 20 year imprisonment was, that his journey to find the truth was a let down. There is a huge lack of focus when it comes to where the film is set. It feels like it was painted with one broad stroke and just left there.
Then there is the supporting cast. Olson is that good Samaritan who is also trying to redeem herself as a nurse battling addiction. But she does very little for us to like her or even hate her. There is just no chemistry between her and Joe as well, making the entire relationship unbelievable. Michael Imperioli‘s character is just there to provide housing and explain how Google works. And it is hard to take Samuel L. Jackson‘s character seriously at all when you keep laughing as he cries in pain or says something witty. Worse part about that is, his character is nothing more than a run of the mill proxy.
The film’s tone was just so inconsistent as well. Considering there were suppose to be twist and turns at very corner, that would seem to be appropriate, but in Lee’s Oldboy it just seemed to be all over the place, and for all the wrong reasons.
That being said, the only other highlight I can think of is Copley being completely unrecognizable. He plays twisted and demented rich man looking to draw out Joe’s pain and give him the clues to find out why he put him in there and why he would release him. And he looks like he is having fun doing it even though he knows that the result will end with his demise.
In the end Oldboy is a barely satisfactory remake that doesn’t even move the bar. Even if you haven’t seen the original, Lee does an okay job with keeping the audience on their toes for as long as they can. Unfortunately, Oldboy‘s uneven tone, sloppy cinematography, and not very well written characters – who don’t even try to attempt to connect with its audience – makes it some what of a let down.