Forget, for the moment, comparisons with Park Chan-Wook’s cult favorite of the same name from 2003; let’s judge Spike Lee’s version of Oldboy on its own merits. It has a different cast & a different setting, and is aimed at a different audience. But the lasting impression of Lee’s film is just how dreadfully dull and routine it ends up becoming, after a promising start.
The first act is solid as we meet Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin), an all-around screw up who is kidnapped in 1993 and locked in a room for two decades, forced to eat the same few takeaway meals over and over again while watching the events of the world unfold on a TV set. We have an intriguing premise, Josh Brolin is holding our attention in a make or break performance, and it’s not something we see in the usual Hollywood thriller. So far so good.
Then Doucett is released and the film rapidly loses control in every way possible; what was an edgy and dark story plays out as just another standard thriller with the same genre beats we’ve seen countless times before. In what universe does Spike Lee think his audience will be fully immersed in a story where we watch characters using Google and iPhones to do their detective work? Yes, this is a first world country in the year 2013 and we’re all used to doing the same thing, but in no way does that translate into an effective thriller. Moreover, when the film isn’t relying on Google to plug the gaps, we are forced to watch characters looking at old newspapers and school yearbooks whilst scene after scene offers endless exposition. The final act is little else than characters telling us what happened in the past and Spike Lee expecting us to give a damn.
The relationship between Doucett and Marie Sebastian (Elizabeth Olsen), a 20-something girl he meets (literally because the ridiculous storyline demands it and for no other reason) is woefully clunky and by pure happenstance. The film never makes us believe they would get together and get involved in this detective story, and all the time it’s part of the grand plan, which makes the entire story seem utterly unbelievable. As the man who locked Doucett away for those 20 years, Sharlto Copley as Adrian derails every scene he is in; it’s like he is in a totally different film and Spike Lee should have had the foresight to see just how terrible this performance was going to look. With his performances in Elyisum and now this, Copley has to be considered the worst actor of the year.
If Copley, the screenwriting-by-numbers dialogue, and the omnipresent Apple products are this bad, let us ask: why even remake Oldboy? I should start by saying I don’t care too much for Park Chan-Wook’s film other than just liking it; it’s not something so sacred to me that I was outraged by the news of a remake. The concept of a man being held prisoner in a room for 20 years without an inkling as to why only to be suddenly released could be taken in countless different directions, so why the need to stick to the original story? Why couldn’t Spike Lee’s Oldboy be a totally different tale than Park Chan-Wook’s? The ‘shocking’ conclusion and story to Park’s film didn’t satisfy me, and I never found it to be a gripping tale, but in Lee’s hands the whole thing just comes across as dumb, convoluted, and utterly silly.
Park’s film is famous for its fight sequence where one man armed with a hammer takes on many men in a tight corridor; the scene is original, one take, and fits with the style and tone of the rest of the film. It wasn’t necessary to drive the plot, it just looked great. In Lee’s film we also get that scene but it serves no purpose other than to connect the two films; if Lee wanted to make this his own film, why include this sequence? Why use a hammer again? Why do it in one take? The scene was special to Park Chan-Wook but here it’s just imitation.
Therein lies the problem with Oldboy; as its own entity it is one third of an interesting film and two thirds a dull thriller without the thrills. As a remake it’s clearly inferior and never sells the story which made gave the original its originality. So what was the point?