Spike Lee has brought us an American remake of a highly regarded Korean film from 2003, Oldboy. Now, in all fairness to the review you are about to read, I’ve seen the original a couple of times and truly think it’s a fantastic, unique film all the way around. With that said, here is my spoiler-free review of the new American version of Oldboy.
Oldboy (2013) stars Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, Sharlto Copley and Samuel L. Jackson. Interesting cast, right? First, I’m a big fan of Brolin overall and of course, who isn’t a fan of Jackson? Josh Brolin has done well for himself but has never truly carried a film on his shoulders which is exactly what he must do in Oldboy. Brolin plays Joe Doucett who, according to the previews and trailers, gets kidnapped and locked away in a hotel room for 20 years before eventually being let out. The remainder of the movie follows his search for who had him locked away, for vengeance. Brolin does an okay job. It’s difficult to truly say because it’s hard to care for this character like we did for Oh Dae-su in the Korean original.
The antagonist is The Stranger played by Sharlto Copley. Throughout the second half of the film, we discover who he is and why he locked Joe away. Copley goes a little beyond what I think needed to be done for his character. Rather than being a true villain or nemesis, he is over the top and becomes a caricature of a bad guy. He is overly eccentric and just not very believable in a film that is supposed to be an intense, stressful ride of pain, agony and discovery.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth Olsen (yes, sister of the Olsen twins), plays Joe Doucett’s love interest, Marie Sebastian. She is by far the highlight of this film and the only reason I’d want to see it again. As the little sister of the Olsen twins, it’s easy to think that she got a movie role based solely on their “fame”, especially since she only started acting in films in 2011. Oldboy is the first film I’ve seen her in though. She is sharp, emotional, strong-willed and most importantly, believable! Ironically, even though the film is about Joe’s discovery, I found myself much more interested in Marie’s story. This is completely on the shoulders of Elizabeth Olsen especially since her Korean counterpart was the, in my opinion, worst part of the original version.
Samuel L. Jackson is decent. He really plays exactly what you’d expect him to play but his character is totally underutilized even in the shadow of the original film.
I think that’s the theme of this whole situation. The Spike Lee version of Oldboy feels like an unnecessary, underutilized, ill-explained shell of the original film by Chan-wook Park. The story is weak, flimsy and thin. The characters, aside from Marie, are hollow and even boring at times. So many aspects of the original are left out for unknown reasons but others thrown in for the sake of having them. Without giving anything away, there are two major examples I want to quickly explore here. The first is the internal monologue of Brolin’s character Joe. There isn’t one! The original had a major monologue for Oh Dae-su which was not only important but necessary to move the story along, connect the audience with the character and explain actions he is taking throughout the film. If you hadn’t seen the original, you’d be lost and confused by many actions taken by Joe because there is no explanation, no internal monologue to explain the why. It’s rumored that a significantly longer (about 40 minutes) version exists that might make it to the Blu-Ray and I’ll be willing to watch it but the theatrical version desperately needs this internal monologue to pull us into the story. The second example is the famous hammer fight scene. I’m not going to spoil anything but the original version was so much more intense, dramatic and blood pumping. It felt like it had a purpose. In the American film, it’s just an action scene with an excuse for Joe to beat some people up. The intensity and meaning is lost.
In the end, I suppose if you’ve never seen the original, you might like this film simple because it’s different and has an interesting twist but personally, I think many aspects would be confusing, unanswered or simply overlooked due to lack of any explanation. For those that have seen the film, I doubt you’ll like it just because you can’t ignore the original here. It’s clear that it both wants to be the original but stand on its own and it does not succeed in doing this. I’m disappointed in all but two aspects. Elizabeth Olsen does a fantastic job and this should not be overlooked. Second, the twist in the American version is actually more plausible and better revealed than the original, even though the rest of the execution lacks. On a final note, as I mentioned, I would definitely be willing to watch a longer, uncut version of the film in hopes that it solves the problems I have, so here’s hoping!