The original Oldboy is a well-respected and popular cult film. This attempt to make an Americanized version expands a bit on the characters but isn’t as adventurous and interesting.
When creating a remake, the filmmaker will encounter a few important decisions that are unique. One decision is whether or not to maintain the original story. Another would be whether or not to keep the film style consistent. In the case of this Oldboy remake, the filmmaker facing these decisions is Spike Lee. Spike Lee is a filmmaker who is very particular about his films, with strong beliefs and a sense of personal integrity. He is not afraid to speak his mind, and as a result there is a fair amount of controversy that surrounds him and his films. Therefore, his decisions for his version of Oldboy are influenced by his perspectives as a filmmaker. The original Oldboy is a disturbing and controversial film itself, so in theory Spike Lee’s experience and ability to take risks shows that he has what it takes to push the boundaries with meaningful conflict in this new version and make it stand out. Unfortunately, that doesn’t really happen due to the choices he makes when presented with the decisions unique to a remake.
The first choice made by the filmmakers is to enhance the original story and restructure the film. Unlike in the original, there is a long exposition and the middle of the film feels drawn out compared to the original. The story is mostly maintained, but details and specifics are changed. These alterations don’t really improve the entertainment value of this new version over the original. If anything, the film feels a bit plotting compared to the rapid pace of the original. One could argue that Lee is trying to spend the time to get the details correct, but focusing too much on characterization robs the film of the innovative storytelling that was present in the original. The second choice made by Spike Lee is to use his own style of filmmaking to tell this story, rather than just replicating the original. The result is a film that prides itself in creating unique visual moments rather than a cohesive stylish statement . Overall, Spike Lee is successful in telling an American version of the classic Korean story, but in doing so the story and film lose some of their charm.
Entertainment Value: Calling this movie fun to watch is a bit of an overstatement, but it does have its moments. For those who have not seen the original film there will undoubtedly be some fascination involved as the story unfolds. For everyone else, the story is similar enough that the twists in this new version don’t really add anything to the experience. While the first film was deadly serious in the second half with some black comedy moments, the new version seems to revel in the violence and twisted nature of the plot. There is rarely a comedic moment besides some gross-out sequences. In this manner, the film doesn’t feel unlike a Tarantino movie. The difference being that unlike a Tarantino movie, there are no likable characters in this film. Spike Lee’s focus on characterization makes the characters seem more real, more terrible. This is probably the only time that I would ever call this a bad thing. Okay (2.5/5)
Story: Joe Doucett is a horrible person. He is an alcoholic chauvinist who is out looking for a good time rather than for the needs of others. One day, while on a drunken rampage, he is captured and placed in a prison cell that is disguised like a hotel room. His only connection to the outside world is a television. From the TV he learns of the brutal murder of his ex-wife, the mother of his young daughter. The authorities have evidence that he was the one who committed this crime. Joe is held in his cell for 20 years before he is mysteriously released. The only thing that keeps him sane is his refocused attitude and yearning to meet his daughter. Once released, he has to figure out why he was imprisoned, who imprisoned him, and most importantly, why he was released...Okay (3/5)
Acting: Joe Doucett is played by Josh Brolin. Brolin is able to make the character very despicable, but his furrowed brow isn’t really convincing or exciting enough for the audience to believe his imprisonment has changed who he is. Elizabeth Olson makes an appearance and her performance is the one that the audience will connect with the most as she seems like the only human being in the movie. Sharlto Copely plays an adversary, and as we have seen from him before, he is a good character actor and his role here is full of creepy quirkiness. Samuel L. Jackson is somewhat amusing as the prison operator. The rest of the cast is suitable but aren’t really given much of a chance to make an impression. Okay (3/5)
Direction: Spike Lee will be getting a lot of flack from fans of the original for doing this movie. Overall, I think he handles it well, but is too focused on some of the smaller details to make the film as entertaining or emotional as it should be. The original film is full of quick scenes, interlaced flashbacks and no “filler material” whatsoever. Spike Lee’s interpretation is the opposite. It is mostly linear, the scenes are longer, and there is a lot of empty space. The empty space makes the film move at a slower pace, the lack of quick shots makes it feel too methodical, and the added scope to the story doesn’t really make the film better. Since different cultures tell stories differently, it is expected that this American version would be more straightforward and leave less for interpretation. For viewers new to the story, this could be helpful, but for fans of the original it may be offensive. However, Lee’s film is a lot cleaner and feels less cluttered than the original version. That leads to some interesting visual moments that the dingy original film didn’t have. Okay (2.5/5)
Production: Because the film feels less cluttered and there are more opportunities for impressive visuals, the cinematography is important. Luckily it is pretty good. The filmmakers decide to make the film quality look somewhat grainy instead of crisp and clear. This may be a nod to the dark tones of the original film or the edgy story. Either way, the manner in which the film is presented to the audience, including some limited special effects and the action/stunt work is fitting and interesting. The legacy of this film will be that it is an Americanized version of a beloved foreign film. Besides telling the story in a way that new American audiences may understand better, it doesn’t really give many additional reasons to see it over the original. It plays homage to the original film but isn’t any more fun or interesting to watch. Good (3.5/5)
What’s Bad: Lacks the emotional appeal and exciting pacing of the original, doesn’t add anything over the original, some of Spike Lee’s risks don’t pay off.