Over the decade since its release, Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy has become a critic and fan favorite the world over. While it might not be a mainstream picture, those who wound up seeing it largely liked it. If you’ve seen it, you have no reason to see Spike Lee’s 2013 remake. If you disliked the original, this one isn’t going to change your mind. If you enjoyed the South Korean version, you’ve seen this material before and the American version doesn’t really deviate from that.
The film follows marketing executive Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) who begins the film as — calling him “flawed” doesn’t really do him justice. He’s an alcoholic jerk who treats everyone like dirt and won’t even both attending his daughter’s birthday. One night, he is taken off the street. He wakes up in what seems like a hotel room, thinking it was just the result of one of his drunken stupors. Turns out, he’s been kidnapped. He will remain in this prison for the next 20 years. He is given no communication with the outside world, save for a television which at more than one moment tells him his ex-wife was murdered, he is blamed for the act, and that his daughter winds up in foster care.
These 20 years pass in about 30 minutes for us. During his imprisonment, Joe beats his alcoholism, gets in very good shape, starts chronicling his stay in letters he plans to deliver to his daughter, and tries to think of a way to escape. One day, he wakes up in a briefcase in a field. He has a cell phone, some money, and sunglasses. He vows to find the person who did this to him.
It winds up working the other way around. Adrian Pryce (Sharlto Copley) finds him and gives him an ultimatum — this is different from the original: If Joe can answer two questions — who is Adrian (Joe isn’t told) and why was Joe imprisoned? — in approximately two days, Adrian will hand over (1) tape of the murder, (2) a signed confession that Adrian did it, not Joe, (3) a briefcase full of diamonds worth $20 million, (4) Joe’s captured daughter, and, finally, (5) Joe will also get to watch Adrian commit suicide.
So, Joe is on a quest not necessarily for revenge, but for answers, his old life back, and … money, actually. The money is what receives the most focus after the return of his daughter. The whole subplot about how Joe was framed for his wife’s murder is basically forgotten about. For a lot of the film Joe is so poorly motivated that you have to think back to this ultimatum in order to remember why he’s doing any of this. Without that focus on revenge, Oldboy loses some of its impact. He almost seems content to remain a “fugitive” — nobody’s looking for him anyway; they all think he’s dead — and run away with a medical worker he meets, Marie (Elizabeth Olsen), who acts as his partner in looking for clues and also as the love interest.
And with so much of the film taking place before this ultimatum is issued, the mystery element winds up being far more rushed than it should. We spend more time locked up with Joe than in the original, which means there’s less time for him to figure everything out. There’s apparently a three-hour cut of this film, and that’s one I’d like to see. At just over 100 minutes, the movie feels far too short and underdeveloped.
With that said, the original managed to balance all of this with a two-hour running time, and it was delved far further into the protagonist’s psyche. It was also more mysterious and didn’t feel like it was handing the audience all of the answers. Spike Lee’s version seems to want to over-explain anything that people might be confused about. As a result, it feels dumbed down.
Oldboy is not without its strengths. The somewhat famous hallway scene from the original film is bigger and somehow more violent — although I wouldn’t say it’s more impressive; it actually feels out of place given it’s stylistic while the rest of the film really isn’t. It’s never boring, either, which is a bonus. It starts out really well, too, and you can really buy the transformation Joe undertakes given how long we stay with him in solitary. That level of depth isn’t kept throughout, unfortunately. And the character who watches over the prison (played in this version by Samuel L. Jackson) is given a slightly expanded role.
Josh Brolin is very intense in the lead role. He made for a strong protagonist and I enjoyed watching him. Elizabeth Olsen isn’t given a whole lot to do as his sidekick and love interest, which is a shame. Her character gets more screen time here than in the original — she even has a real back story and everything — but mostly she just sits in the background and exists for Brolin to bounce exposition off. Sharlto Copley doesn’t take a serious approach to the villain role, although he is kind of fun to watch.
At the end of it all, I find myself asking “What’s the point?” The remake doesn’t bring anything new to the table. What it does is be a slightly dumbed-down, less poignant version of a film we’ve already seen. It’s more accessible, I suppose, but this material is already pretty perverse; if you’re going to see it, you should go all the way and watch the original.