A man is kidnapped and forced to spend 20 years in isolation, in captivity, controlled but not harmed. He is finally allowed to escape and then he is given a single question to answer: who kidnapped him, and why?
It’s an almost irresistible set-up for a film, and when Chan-wook Park adapted it as the middle part of his “Vengeance” trilogy, it was a perfect match of filmmaker and material. There is a fury to the film that is still somewhat terrifying when you see it, and Park delivers each new twist to the narrative like he’s holding a knife that’s already buried deep between two ribs, like he is enjoying each twist, knowing exactly what damage he’s doing. While much of Spike Lee’s best work is driven by a simmering anger, it’s a very different kind, and his new version of “Oldboy” feels like someone stranded by material rather than someone liberated by it.
When discussing a remake, I hate carrying the original into the experience, but it’s unavoidable here if you’ve seen the first film. That must be what Film District is counting on, because I can’t imagine that anyone who is a fan of that first film is particularly eager to see another version of the same story. I consider Park’s film to be a modern classic, but it’s still a film I can barely work up the urge to see a second time because of what a brutal emotional ride it is. It makes me wonder who they made this film for. The theory behind remakes is that you’re playing off of the recognition of that title to make something commercial, something that is new but that can be sold as the familiar. When you’re talking about a South Korean movie based on a manga series, is there really any mainstream commercial value in remaking that for a broad audience? It’s the same question I’ve been asking the entire time Hollywood’s been talking about this remake. I can see a sort of friction that might exist between filmmaker and material if Steven Spielberg had made the film, as was discussed for a while, and if he had indeed cast Will Smith in the lead, it would have been interesting to see one of our last big movie stars playing so firmly against type.
Josh Brolin stars as Joe Doucett, a total bag of crap, and right up front, the script by Mark Protosevich makes sure to show us just how much of a mess this guy is. He’s the sort of alcoholic who has gotten to the point where all he can do is drink to maintain. He’s a terrible husband, an absent father, and when he disappears, it’s not necessarily a bad thing for anyone else in the world. As shot by the amazing Sean Bobbitt (“12 Years A Slave,” “Shame,” “Byzantium”), there’s a rot to the entire world around Joe that feels appropriate. On a technical level, the film is just fine, and probably the best sustained stretch of material involves Joe’s years in captivity.
No matter what he tries, Joe is unable to help himself. When he finally gets out of his bizarre prison, it’s because he is released, and it turns out this is just stage one of a punishment that was designed specifically for him. Unfortunately, it’s at this point that Lee’s film starts to get wobbly, and the ways this film fails reveal just how special the original is. More than that, it exposes just how difficult it can be to pull off certain ideas or certain beats on film. Two filmmakers can shoot the same scene and end up with two things that are totally different, and a million different factors can contribute to why one works and the other doesn’t.
For example, you could cast Sharlto Copley as your bad guy. I’ve enjoyed other work that Copley has done, and I think he’s the sort of intuitive actor who makes big choices and commits to them completely. The problem is when those choices don’t work, and this should be the example of how wrong things can go. If you didn’t care for his work in “Elysium,” that is a model of restraint and subtlety compared to his work here. This is an arch, phony, completely hammy performance, and he positively tanks the film every single moment he’s onscreen. I don’t use this word often, but I honestly feel like Copley’s performance here is embarrassing.
Without being specific, “Oldboy” is not a film about “twists” so much as it is a mystery built on top of several ticking time bombs. How and when those time bombs go off has a lot to do with how the film works overall, and I’ll warn anyone who is unaware of the story that there are some big disturbing ideas lurking at the icky heart of the film. Here again, the way two different films can tackle the same material to very different effect is thrown into stark contrast. When Park’s film finally lays all the cards on the table, there is a sad, beautiful horror that hits, and Min-sik Choi’s heartbreak is so palpable that it’s almost impossible to watch. Lee’s film is so relentless in the way it tries to barrage the audience with filth that by the time those final pieces are dropped into the puzzle, it’s numbing rather than explosive.
Josh Brolin is a good choice for Doucett, and he convincingly plays a self-destructive man whose free-fall is arrested momentarily by someone who wants to make sure he hurts as much as possible on his way down. Brolin’s big enough that he seems believable as a sort of wrecking ball once he starts trying to figure out who is punishing him, and Elizabeth Olsen does everything she can to give nuance to Marie, a young woman who takes pity on Joe and who helps him with his search for answers. Samuel L. Jackson shows up for two memorable scenes but he could easily be cut from the film without changing the outcome one little bit.
This brings us to the hammer fight. One of Jackson’s scenes is what kicks off the infamous fight sequence, and in the original film, it’s an audacious, startling bit of mayhem that is a shock to the audience because of who is doing it and when it happens. It is the tip-off that Dae-su Oh has changed in some major way, that he is a weapon to be feared now. In Lee’s film, there is an obligatory sense of “Now it’s time for the hammer scene!”, and the way it has been designed and stage is so insanely self-aware that you can almost see Spike Lee at the edge of the frame holding up a cue card that reads, “Get it? Our version is three times longer, so that makes it three times better… RIGHT?!?!?!” Instead of organically shooting and choreographing the moment to reveal character, Lee has staged it as a reaction to the original scene, and the only purpose it serves is as a comparison to the original scene. This one moment ultimately encapsulates everything that doesn’t work about this version of “Oldboy.” It is technically impressive in the most hollow way possible, and it doesn’t serve any real purpose beyond reflecting the original movie. I wouldn’t call this one of the year’s worst films. It is watchable in a surface, inconsequential way. However, i would call it a major misstep for Lee, and I think the most damning thing I could call it is also the most accurate: this movie is forgettable.
Where the original will endure and grow and be revisited in the future, this will become an answer for trivia contests, quickly forgotten except as a footnote when discussing the original. They may have cranked up the violence and multiplied the body count, but this “Oldboy” never really lands a punch.
“Oldboy” opens everywhere tomorrow.