My mum used to fantasise about having a dinner party with historical figures. She’d often ask my brother and I who we’d invite to such a party; who we’d want to have intellectual conversations with. For example, she’d want David Attenborough and Leonardo DiCaprio to regale her with tales of their environmental rescue efforts, and Gandhi for his peace-loving way of life.
I’d have a few of them over too, but I’d also invite Hitler. I’ve always wanted to have a decent conversation with him. There was a devoted and talented painter beneath that impassioned and boisterous facade, and maybe an hour of friendly chitchat would get that out of him again. Now, after seeing this remake of the much beloved South Korean classic, Oldboy, I have a feeling I’d want director Spike Lee over for dinner too. I wouldn’t want to converse with him. I’d want only to ask him one question: “Why did you think it necessary to remake Oldboy?”. If he can provide a satisfactory answer, I’ll let him walk out with the rights to remake another foreign film.
There is, to be honest, nothing intrinsically wrong with this new version. But there’s nothing particularly right about it either. It’s a remake, and a remake is all it is. For the most part, I was engrossed. The characters are engaging. The plot unfolds with the terror of a horror story. The look and mood of the film cleverly reflect the original, and in their own way make it stand apart from it. But I suspect that all this is because the source material that fuelled Park Chan Wook’s original is well written, and not because Spike Lee or writer Mark Protosevich do anything groundbreaking with what they have.
The plot is essentially the same. Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) is a drunkard lout who drinks all and understands none. He works for a sales company, and after a pitch goes horribly wrong — he hits on his client’s wife — he drowns himself in alcohol to speed up the night hours. Some time during his inebriated tirade he is kidnapped. He wakes to find himself trapped in a dingy motel room with no windows and no handles on the doors. It doesn’t take him long to realise that the room is a cell, and he’s now a prisoner.
Like Chan Wook’s original, Joe spends the next however many years first feeling sorry for himself, then buffing himself up in preparation for his kidnapper’s demise. He learns of the world’s events through the TV. Among them is his wife’s rape and murder, evidently at his hands. His three-year old daughter has been adopted by social services and given to the care of some suburban couple. Their identities are not important. You’ll find out why.
He trains and masturbates and eats dumplings for 20 years. Just before he escapes through a tediously dug out hole in his bathroom wall, he is set free. Why? Ah, that’s what he’ll have to find out. I feel like I’m repeating myself. I should direct you to my review of the Korean Oldboy if you want a description of the plot. It is exactly the same, except for a few minor tweaks. But the tweaks are only skin deep. The sturdy core of both films are unmodified. Spike Lee even opts to replicate the one-shot hammer fight scene. It’s a worthy effort, but it looks more like an outtake than a tribute.
There must be a reason for wanting to remake something. Especially something as treasured as Oldboy. What did Lee see in the original that he thought needed mending? I think this is the wrong question to ask. I think Lee wanted only to convert the story from an Asian perspective to an American one. The villain speaks with a haughty British accent. The romance formed between Joe and Marie (Joe’s sidekick, played by Elizabeth Olsen) grows from cliche — they are not driven by the story; they’re driven by themselves. The violence is muted, and the deep human desperation behind the violence is also missing. The entire movie comes across as being very safe, despite some gruesome moments. This is what most people will expect of this film. The acting is good. The casting is about right. The plot is a duplicate of the original, so it will certainly be captivating. But it’s missing soul and purpose. Brolin does well in Joe’s shoes, but he’s not Choi Min Sik. Not even close.
Best Moment | I thought the title sequence was smartly done. Other than that, I didn’t enjoy any particular moment.
Worst Moment | The climax. It’s all very… hollow. It’s where the writing really thins out and all the movie’s weaknesses come to surface.