While Hollywood becomes saturated in superheroes and remakes it seems inevitable that films deemed ‘untouchable’ will invariably be on the receiving end of the remake treatment. That includes cult classics such as Oldboy, the original of which, once seen, lingers long in the mind. But can Spike Lee’s Oldboy remake conjure that same shock and horror or is this merely a re-tread for those who would rather not read subtitles?
The story here is the same as the original. In 1993 Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) is an alcoholic ad-man, think Mad Men’s Don Draper but without the charm. Screwing up a deal one night he goes on a bender and awakes in a motel room that he is trapped in for the next twenty years, during which time he’s framed for the rape and murder of his ex-wife while his only daughter Mia is adopted. Finally released Joe goes to friend Chucky (Michael Imperioli) for help in finding out what happened to him. With the help of new friend Marie (Elizabeth Olsen) Joe soon learns that the person who imprisoned him wants him to find out why. When said Stranger (Sharlto Copley) presents himself to Joe he informs him that unless he can tell him why he has taken these actions against Joe he will kill Mia.
A good remake should bring something new to the table, something that was not seen in the original. A bad remake will simply tread over the original almost verbatim. The best example of this is Gus Van Sant’s remake of Psycho. Oldboy is certainly respectful of Park Chan-wook’s original film, almost too much so. There’s nothing here that wasn’t in the 2003 film.
So the violence is crunching and visceral, the revenge is bloody and fuelled with enough hate and malice to turn your stomach. But if you have seen the original there is nothing here to capture the imagination. You’ll know what’s coming and you’ll wonder, like the remake of Let The Right One In, Let Me In, why you simply don’t watch the original and infinitely better.
Lee is always a director that does hard-hitting with the most heavy-handed of touches and Oldboy is no exception. His camera twisting this way and that as if possessed by the spirit of Alfred Hitchcock but it all seems like an over compensation in trying to bring something fresh to a now well known story. What is more surprising is that a director such as Lee, who has never been short of an original film from his own stable, should turn his attention to what is quite obviously a cash-cow for a studio rather than an opportunity for him to flex his artistic muscles. It’s a sad state of affair when a filmmaker of Lee’s talents feels neutered by such a venture.
Brolin brings his typically grizzled gruffness to the film, only this time his twenty-year hibernation makes him all the more bear like. Olsen continues her rich form from Martha Marcy May Marlene but is never asked to do much more other than look cute and a little broken. However it is Copley who seems to be singing from a different hymn sheet to everyone else. His villain, played with a British accent that would creep-out the cast of Downton Abbey, is so over-the-top camp you half expect him to break into a song about rainbows. It’s supposed to be menacing but only succeeds in being laughably cartoonish.
If you’re new to the world of Oldboy this incarnation will certainly shock but you’d be better of seeing the original. If you’re familiar with Chang-wook’s work you’d best look elsewhere for your next dose of bloody revenge. By no means bad just utterly pointless.