To its credit, Spike Lee’s version of Oldboy goes all the way. The twist that made the Korean original is intact, and played through. I saw the film with one person who had never watched the original, and she was visibly upset by what was happening onscreen.
So it has that going for it. It has almost nothing else, unfortunately. While Oldboy is faithful to the original in terms of plot, it’s unfaithful in terms of tone and filmmaking; gone is the bravura assurance of Park Chan-wook, replaced with a dour time card-punching aesthetic from Spike Lee. Is this what Spike, one of the greatest living filmmakers, a natural with cinema, has been reduced to? Showing up and shooting and going home?
I assume most of you reading this have seen the original, but for the few who have not I will exhibit caution when it comes to spoilers. Know that, by some definitions, anything that happens after the first act of Oldboy is spoilery due to an unfolding mystery, so I’d recommend watching the original before reading the rest of this review.
Josh Brolin is Joe Doucett, a Don Draper in decline. His boozing and lewd come-ons may have once been charming, but now they’re just creepy and sad. His life is falling apart around him, he’s too drunk to make his daughter’s birthday and he’s all but lost his job. As he stumbles through the streets of New Orleans (anyone hoping that post-Katrina N’Awlins documenter Spike Lee might be using this location to mean something, forget about it) he ends up suddenly kidnapped and placed in a cell that looks like a motel room. He has a TV and a window with a fake landscape that changes from day to night. He has meals shoved through a slot, each coming with a bottle of booze. He has no communication with anyone. He doesn’t know where he is, or why he’s there. Or how long he’ll be there.
He’s there a long time. Long enough to see on TV that his wife is murdered and that he’s the suspect. Long enough to see that his daughter has been raised in a foster family, never knowing her true father. He’s there long enough to get sober and ripped and to learn martial arts from watching TV. He’s planning to break out, but before he can he gets gassed and awakens to find himself set free. Now he begins seeking revenge, trying to figure out who locked him up and extract a pound of flesh. He won’t like what he finds.
The script by Mark Protosevitch is fairly close to the original, down to the captive being fed dumplings every day and a big bravado fight happening with a hammer. Protosevitch changes one element at the end that I quite liked, and that I think is actually a better choice than made in the original - but otherwise the movie does little to differentiate itself.
When it does differentiate itself it does so in all the wrong ways. Josh Brolin is absolutely miscast as Joe Doucett, a character who looks as big and manly going into prison as he does coming out. In the 2003 film Min-sik Choi’s Oh Dae-su is a weedy man who comes out of his imprisonment totally changed. Brolin’s clearly just sticking out his gut in the early scenes.
But that’s a big deal when compared with the casting of Sharlto Copley as the mysterious jailer. In Spike Lee’s version this mysterious jailer is a little, sort of weaselly man whose body is covered in hideous scars. Those scars relate to why he imprisoned Doucett in the first place. But the majesty of the 2003 version is that the captor was taller and more handsome than Oh Dae-su. The scars he carried were mental, and his burning, psychotic desire for revenge becomes even crazier when you realize that he was fixating on a loser whose life he had bested in every single way. Copley’s playing a standard villain; in 2003 Ji-tae Yu was playing something more complex and unusual.
Tragically wasted is Elizabeth Olsen, playing a social worker who comes to Joe's aid. She's given little to do and her growing love affair with Doucett is gross because Olsen and Brolin have absolutely zero chemistry. There's nothing between them, and when they kiss it's like meat being rubbed together. Brolin has more electric chemistry with Michael Imperioli, playing Joe's best buddy who owns a bar.
I have a theory about Spike Lee’s Oldboy: the people who made it heard about Park Chan-wook’s movie before they saw it. They heard about the fucked up ending and how crazy it got, and that knowledge shadowed their entire experience of it. How else to explain the fact that Oldboy 2013 is, from the first frame, a dirge? Park Chan-wook’s movie fools us by starting out as a kinetic, exciting movie where we root for Oh Dae-su to solve the mystery of his captivity, but in Lee’s version he might as well be wearing a sign that says ‘doomed’ around his neck. As a result the twist works only on a purely visceral level - the ‘ewwww’ factor - and not as a complete reversal of the movie we had been watching. I saw the 2003 Oldboy fresh, knowing only it was the latest crazy movie from Korea, and I was left gobsmacked by how the finale turned everything around, recontextualizing the entirety of the vengeance story. Oldboy 2013 telegraphs all of that a mile away. Only Samuel L. Jackson, playing the colorful character who runs the secret prison, seems to have an understanding of the energy of the orginal movie, as he brings it all. His scenes are the best scenes, and almost give you hope for the film.
Part of the problem could be that Spike Lee seems utterly disengaged. Anyone hoping for more energetic pulpy Spike in the vein of The Inside Man will be disappointed. The film is a slog, and it’s missing a lot of Spike’s trademark touches (the dolly shot happens early in the film and is pretty useless. Why not use that bit in the hammer fight, Spike?). Again, the New Orleans setting is utterly wasted and the city is presented anonymously; climbing out of the wreckage feels thematically appropriate for this movie, so why not use it? I love Spike Lee, but it's impossible for me to defend this one.
Everything crystallizes in the hammer fight. It’s the sort of scene where Brolin stops to grab a hammer because that’s what was used in the first film. The fight itself looks to be pretty much exactly the same as the orginal film’s fight, except longer. I didn’t do a side-by-side comparison, but the moves look so similar that I felt like I was watching someone sweding it.
The story of Oldboy is still a good story, but it’s not well told here. Oldboy 2013 is a dour, glum plod through much more interesting territory. It’s a film whose heart isn’t in it. Let’s put it this way: five years from now when you’re talking about Oldboy, nobody’s going to say ‘Which one?’