Oldboy (2013) (3.5/5)
Hollywood has been threatening to remake Oldboy for some time now. At one point Stephen Spielberg and Will Smith were supposed to team up and tackle the Korean revenge drama, which suggested to many that any American remake of Oldboy would be a watered down remake of Oldboy. But I don’t think anyone suspected that Spike Lee would be tapped to helm the American version of the cult classic. Like others, I love Lee’s work because he is such an idiosyncratic auteur, capable of plastering all of his thoughts, concerns and fears across a movie screen. The idea of Lee working on what is essentially a genre exercise seemed counterintuitive, but it was also the incongruous meeting of director and film that made me interested in an American version of Oldboy a decade after the release of the original. If nothing else, Lee’s Oldboy shows people that he can deliver the goods when it comes to blood, guts and action. If he didn’t have so much to say, Lee could have been a damn good director for hire.
Of course, I was never a huge fan of the original film, and I think Chan-wook Park has made better movies, but over the years I’ve come to appreciate the movie as a collection of bizarre and engaging images. For me, the original never coheres as a whole, but it is a great series of disconnected segments. Lee’s remake stays relatively true to the broad outlines of the original’s plot. And while in interviews Lee is quick to stress that he thinks of the film as a “reimagining” rather than a remake, his film is a lot more faithful than that word suggests. If nothing else, the 2013 version of Oldboy is an interesting genre exercise that is likely to be just as shocking as the original to the uninitiated but probably only an odd curiosity for those of us who caught the first film ten years ago.
For those who haven’t seen Park’s film, the protagonist of Oldboy, in this version named Joe Doucett, is an overworked businessman. Early in the film we see Joe not so clandestinely take a few chugs of vodka out of one of those flask sized containers, made for those who are committed to being day drunk on a semi-regular basis but don’t want to go all the way and buy an actual flask. Later Joe blows up at his ex-wife after she suggests that he show up for his daughter’s third birthday, and then proceeds to clown his own business dinner by hitting on a prospective client’s date. Lee’s version paints a far more desperate and depraved image of its protagonist as a member of the corporate good ol’ boys club. While some might take issue with this change, complaining that Joe’s eventual entrapment seems more justified in the remake, it does add another layer to Joe’s determination to get revenge. Tracking down those who imprisoned him seems as much about making amends for who he was as it is about plain old vengeance.
After a major bender that finds him yelling in the middle of the street and vomiting on the sidewalk, Joe wakes up in an unsettling hotel room with little more than a television, creepy photo of a bellboy, and an adjacent bathroom. Joe’s captors provide him daily meals every day, including a small container of vodka and the ever present dumplings from the original film. Here Joe spends the next twenty years of his life, barely holding on to his insanity. Lee actually extends this portion of the film, and he arguably improves on the original by including little details like Joe’s attempt to befriend a mouse and her brood. Like much of the film, the sequence is born on the shoulders of Josh Brolin’s surprisingly engaging performance, which spans the gamut from confusion to rage to debased desperation.
Joe does eventually get out, but instead of following through on an escape plan he has conjured, he is unceremoniously released. From here, Joe starts to plot his revenge with the aid of an old friend played by Michael Imperioli (a Spike Lee regular) and a young medical assistant played by Elizabeth Olsen. The remake follows the guideline of the original, and if anything it actually spends more time wallowing in the Grand Guignol twists this time around, perhaps as a rejoinder to those who believed an American remake wouldn’t have the guts to follow through with some of the more revolting aspects of the first movie. Lee evinces a clear love of Park’s film, and there are a handful of visual allusions throughout the film, which seem to pierce the thin membrane separating the original and the remake.
As always, Lee brings his consummate visual eye to the proceedings, and he often garnishes his dark and seedy cityscapes with bright flashes of color. He even films the action with aplomb, besting other directors who supposedly direct action movies as a career. (Rumor has it that Lee filmed an even longer version of the single shot hammer sequence, but that the studio forced him to cut it down, perhaps the only real concession to American audiences in the film). And as I mentioned, Brolin’s varied performance carries the film along with the same magnetic pull as one of Lee’s double dolly shots. In all the film is well made. I’m just not completely certain it’s a necessary film. The 2013 Oldboy is like a good cover of a song that stays pretty close to the original. The new band knows what made the song great in the first place, and they dutifully reproduce that. But in the end those who love the original will always prefer listening to the original.