When you think about it, we dodged a bullet here. Originally, when it was rumored that Park Chan-wook’s epic tale of revenge, Oldboy, was being remade by Hollywood, the star and director attached to the proposed project indicated a level of creative cluelessness that was stunning in its sheltered stupidity. While he’s definitely one of our greatest living filmmakers, Steven Spielberg would have had to significantly alter his game to give us anything remotely close to that 2003 classic, and with the stated star, Will Smith, in front of the camera, the King of the Blockbuster would have really had his work cut out for him. There’s just no way to conceive of this duo making anything remotely watchable, the dark and dour source material acting as an impediment to their usual audience-friendly focus.
Thankfully, someone with the audacity of Spike Lee stepped in and wrestled this remake into shape. Hiring Josh Brolin helped, as did bringing on Sharlto Copley and Elizabeth Olsen. As the main trio in this tale of secrets and sadism, they help turn what could have been a misguided mess into a well meaning and quite effective update. This isn’t a massive reimagining — most of the main narrative beats and “twists” are still intact, but Lee finds a way to make the material his own. From the moments that mimic what Park Chan-wook accomplished (including an amazing take on the hammer fight) to a finale which finds an equally meaningful way to deal with a character’s crude choices, we get a similar experience seen through fresh eyes.
Indeed, the best way to describe this Oldboy is to say it’s a new interpretation of the same source. Granted, Park took major liberties with the manga that provided the main plotline, so there’s really no room to argue. It’s as if both filmmakers found the common ground within Nobuaki Minegishi and Garon Tsuchiyava’s work, each one adding to it what they do best. For Park, it’s a sense of spiritual brutality, each action and moral/immoral reaction playing a part in his hero’s (and his villain’s) desire to regain his lost life. For Lee, it’s about humanity and its eventual loss, of how one man can go from a drunken womanizer to a hardened warrior of the course of 20 long years being locked up. The set-up is the same: businessman Joe Doucett (Brolin) is seemingly kidnapped by an unknown power and held in a hotel like prison for two decades. There he learns that his ex-wife has been killed, that he is the prime suspect in the crime, and that his baby daughter has been given up for adoption.
When he’s finally released, he goes on a rampage trying to figure out who did this to him. With the help of a couple of friends, childhood buddy Chucky (Michael Imperioli) and a caring social worker named Marie (Olsen), Joe journeys back through the months, remembering specifics about his captivity. This leads him to a Chinese restaurant, and the location of his own personal Hell. After torturing the Warden (Samuel L. Jackson) for information, Joe is approach by a mysterious man (Copley) who makes a proposal. If our hero can figure out why he was confined, and better still, why he was released, he will be rewarded handsomely. If he can’t, this enigmatic individual will have his now-adult daughter killed. All paths lead to a private school that Joe attended in his youth, and a scandal that supposedly happened there.
If you’ve never seen Park’s film, you should. It’s a masterpiece of misery. If you really haven’t however, you are probably the primary target for this remake. Indeed, without the burden of direct comparison, Oldboy would seem like a solid, almost Hitchcockian thriller. It contains elements that are easily accessible, as well as artistic accents which make the movie all Lee’s. Oddly enough, this is the first time that the filmmaker has dropped the “Joint” from his above-title credit. Perhaps it in acknowledgement that, within of his creative canon, Oldboy is not wholly his. It could also be a bow to the mainstream, to remind them that, as with efforts like Inside Man, Lee can pander to the pedestrian.
Nothing about Oldboy is ordinary, however. Instead, Lee stokes his sequences with a quiet rage that you just know will result in bloodshed and a high body count. Joe is not necessarily a violent man, but 20 years being treated like an animal has turned him into one. At the drop of an insinuation, he’s all fists and fury. As we learn more about this man, we discover that such savagery was always part of his personality. Previously, it was youth and a lack of psychological need that kept his cruelty in check. Now unleashed, Joe is the very definition of a brute. Even his supposedly “love” scenes with Marie turn into rough, primitive expressions. The script by Mark Protosevich gives this gal her own complicated backstory, so we can see why she is draw to Joe’s strength, and his secrets.
As for the movie’s many surprises, Lee handles them well. Copley’s reveal ushers in his cultured villainy, and from that moment on, the movie moves like a Western giallo. The whodunit, or why-dunit, may be at the fore, but the complicated character interactions and the determining denouements are what sell this cinematic statement. Lee legitimizing the narrative turns, never once allowing them to become too big for the people populating them. Indeed, the performances are uniformly excellent, each actor finding the right note to make the machinery of this movie work. Olsen is particularly good as a lonely woman lost, while Copley provides the kind of hissable vileness that never ceases to satisfy. About the only flaw here is familiarity. For those who know and adore Park’s picture, this will all seem like Oldboy old hat. Luckily, Lee brings enough of his individuality to the process to warrant a revisit.
Let’s face facts, no remake of Oldboy was going to be 100% successful. The original was so enigmatic and so beloved that the battle was more than uphill: it was near impossible. In this case, we were fortunate. Spike Lee stepped in and kept this update from being a sanitized slight. With Spielberg and Smith in charge, Oldboy would have been awful. With Lee and Brolin, it stands on its own.