To anyone planning to see Spike Lee’s Oldboy: you know the original is on Netflix Instant, right? This American remake is basically like if McDonald’s tried to do an American version of kimchi and served us ketchup on cabbage. It’s not going to please any fans of the original, and you might like it separate from, and ignorant of the original, but probably only if you’re desperately hungry and an idiot.
Still, credit where credit’s due, Spike Lee did not turn in a mediocre movie. Mediocre is what you expect from an American remake of a foreign movie, all the idiosyncrasies and identifying features scrubbed away to form a bland grey dildo with which to sodomize yourself. Mediocre movies are a dime a dozen. They’re frequently made, forgettable, and they teach us nothing. Making one as transcendently terrible, as breathtakingly tone deaf and self-defeating as Spike Lee’s take on Chan-wook Park’s Oldboy (2003), on the other hand, is an achievement. A truly bad film is as rare as a great one, a true failure as compelling as a success. The stars have to align just right for things to go as wrong as this. Terrible ideas have to be suggested, seconded, and dutifully produced, and then multiplied by spontaneous misses and happy accidents of badness. The result isn’t just a “train wreck,” as so many pans suggest, because train wrecks don’t have blueprints and construction workers. Oldboy (2013) is more like a Winchester Mystery House of filmmaking, where stairways lead to walls and hallways empty into thin air. You wouldn’t want to live there, sure, but it does inspire you to wonder. Mostly it inspires the three Ws. What? Why? What the f*ck?
The one thing Spike Lee does do well is to create a grounded sense of time and place. It’s set right in his back yard, New York City (can you believe it?!), and as always with Spike Lee, you can feel his affection for the place in every frame. This works perfectly against Oldboy’s actual plot, which is more like a Bible story or a fable, where the setting and details play a distant second fiddle to the themes. Mainly the story is about being undone by your own quest for knowledge, where knowledge itself becomes the punishment. Lee’s Oldboy is too present to be Biblical and there’s no sense of otherworldliness to excuse its plot holes (when it isn’t creating new ones). It exists in the here and now, and it sucks.
I’m desperately trying not lapse into “in this version blah blah, but in THIS version yadda yadda fart,” because in most of the basic ways, the two movies are pretty much the same. Lee’s setup actually works a little better, in the sense that it does a better job of painting the main character (Oh Dae-Su is now Joe Doucett) as kind of an asshole. Then, Doucett’s strange imprisonment begins, and Lee at best seems to not understand what the original was about, and at worst just does poorly staged versions of it.
The infamous hammer fight, which in the original was staged in a narrow hallway, where one guy taking on 10 might make a small amount of sense, in this version takes place in a wide-open warehouse, where henchmen politely wait to get beaten up by the hero one by one while taking the occasional menacing swipe at thin air. It looks like a stunt show you’d see at Universal Studios, and it’s staged with so little care for believability that you wonder if it was meant to be some kind statement. Also, I didn’t have to suspend that much disbelief for the Korean version, because I don’t know Korea that well. Maybe street thugs don’t have guns there? In New York, what gang is organized enough to be a gang but not organized enough to have guns? And where do you even get a two-by-four in New York? Did they take a cab down to the Home Depot on 60th? If so, I want to see that scene.
The lack of staging doesn’t just kill the fight scene, it permeates the entire movie. Chan-wook Park’s version was about visual wit as much as anything else. Without it, Lee’s version just comes off generic and strangely mean-spirited. It’s vengeance and punishment without the spice of glee. Lee adds unnecessary backstory while leaving out crucial elements of what made the first just believable enough (post-hypnotic suggestion, for instance). And in a scene where Josh Brolin’s character has supposedly been imprisoned for 20 years (yes, it’s 20 years in this version instead of 15, just because), he appears with shaggy, unkempt hair and a beard, but also with a perfectly shaved chest. It’s bizarre that so many filmmakers will make actresses use merkins or have period-appropriate pubic hair but just assume that we’ll accept waxed man-chests without even a cursory attempt to work it into the plot. Come on, man, I know what a shaved chest looks like (oh boy do I).
Elizabeth Olsen as the love interest is the only real improvement I can recommend over the original, in that she’s a solid actress, looks great, and doesn’t have a grating baby voice like Mi-Do did. Lee also leaves out some of the rapier elements of the original, which makes it more generic, but also, you know, less rapey. Meanwhile, Sharlto Copley’s ascot-wearing, Aristocratic accented, opera-listening, wingtip-shoed, weird-art collecting, Asian concubine-keeping bad guy plays like a parodical attempt to create the cheesiest bad guy of all time. A bad guy with an accent taunting the hero over the phone?! My gosh, I’ve never seen this before! Ooh, maybe he could also be menacingly petting a cat!