Just Say No – The Will Smith/Steven Spielberg Remake of ‘Oldboy’

Right now, it’s only a rumor, and if the gods of film are paying attention, here’s hoping it stays that way. Granted, Variety is not some nerd dominated rag given over to the spurious reporting of half truths, but when one reads an item like this, it naturally leads to questions of journalistic integrity. Can it really be true? Can the king of the blockbuster, Steven Spielberg, really be considering a remake of Chan-wook Park’s Oldboy with none other than the Prince of July 4th, Will Smith, in the lead? Somewhere, in his isolated basement bedroom, a film geek is quietly weeping.

For those totally unfamiliar with Park’s disturbing effort, the pairing of Smith and Spielberg may seem like a natural. After all, both men excel at bringing larger than life entertainments to the big screen, and yet each one is quite capable of the smaller, and yet still mainstream friendly film. That the two haven’t hooked up before is one of those Tinsel Town truths that just seems false. After all, they represent the reach of the artform, both commercially and culturally. But those who know Oldboy understand what a major miscalculation this is. The disturbing, violent revenge flick is about as far outside each artist’s comfort zone as creatively possible.

Oldboy centers on the story of unimportant businessman Dae-su Oh and wealthy playboy Woo-jin Lee. The former has been ‘wrongfully’ imprisoned for 15 years. The latter apparently has the means – and more importantly, the motive – to affect such a severe personal punishment. Within such a set up, we are treated to a brutal, sometimes beautiful narrative, Park exploring the nature of retribution and past mistakes as part of a three film trilogy on the subject. Oldboy falls in the middle, between Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance. It’s also the film critic turned director’s most recognizable and acclaimed international hit.

Now, no one is saying that Spielberg and Smith can’t handle the action. Both men have made movies where edge of your seat thrills is one of the picture’s main purposes. And the nasty nature of some of the sequences could be toned down for Western tastes without losing much of their blood-drenched import or dynamic. Even issues of age, cultural philosophy, and narrative ambiguity could be handled by these Hollywood heavyweights. No, where the main issue with Oldboy comes is in the translation department, and the subject matter requiring adaptation. In this manner, it seems surreal that two superstars not known for controversy would court same in such a blatant, box office unfriendly manner.

For those who have not see Oldboy, the next few paragraphs are going to be loaded with SPOILERS, so perhaps it’s better to stop reading now. For those who love Park’s original, the material mentioned here is the 800lb gorilla in the screening room. You see, the main subtext in the conflict between Dae-su and Woo-jin is incest. One blames the other for starting a vicious rumor that lead his sister to suicide. As a result, Dae-su is kidnapped on his daughter’s birthday, hidden away for 15 years, and then when released, given a limited time frame to find out why. So Dae-su spends most of the movie playing pissed off detective, destroying those who stole his life from him.

Naturally, there’s a love interest. But leave it to Park to play perverted and disturbing with the genre formulas. When Dae-su meets the lovely Mi-Do, he doesn’t realize that they are related. Indeed, all throughout Oldboy, Park slowly peels back the narrative layers to reveal that Woo-jin, angry that his former classmate may have driven his sibling to her death, plots a sickeningly savage payback. Just as the rumor of incest (and the truth, perhaps) led to one tragedy, Woo-jin orchestrates Dae-su’s capture and torture to lure his victim into the arms of a woman – his own daughter. It’s a disturbed little denouement, and one that offers up Oldboy‘s final act of personal attrition.

With an ambiguous ending that suggests Dae-su and Mi-Do may stay together after all, and an unhealthy kind of karmic realignment, Oldboy is indeed a masterpiece. It’s visually stunning, while announcing Park (and the entire South Korean film industry, for that matter) as a post-millennial foreign voice worth considering. When it was released in 2003, it caused a sensation. Festival audiences lucky enough to see it where left drained, while messageboards began the inevitable debates and deconstructions. Even as it was finding its niche on DVD, talks began about the almost automatic Hollywood remake. While such names as Harvey Keitel and Nicholas Cage were mentioned as potential stars, nothing really solid came out of such suggestions.

While no one is claiming that Smith and Spielberg can’t handle themselves professionally, one senses something wrong with either choice. Park’s problem in Oldboy was making his generally nasty anti-hero into something sympathetic, while the villain is veiled in the kind of upper class snobbery and personal charisma that makes him simultaneously easy and hard to hate. Mi-Do is neither victim nor vixen. Instead, she’s a sad girl, desperate to cling to something to make up for her vacant, painful past. So where, exactly, in either man’s creative canon does such subtle complexity lie. Spielberg’s most ambitious drama was also his most obvious – Schindler’s List. He didn’t have to do much to make the Holocaust horrific. Smith, on the other hand, has a couple of feel good dramas under his belt (The Pursuit of Happyness, the upcoming Six Pounds), but most everything else is tinged with humor.

The notion of Mr. Fresh Prince taking on Dae-su’s unfathomable ordeal, a journey which transports the character from nobody to prisoner to insanity to murder to sex to scandal to self-mutilation is one drenched in Eastern values and precepts. Smith may be able to battle angry extraterrestrials, light-sensitive zombies, and CG creations of all shapes and size, but we’ve never really seen him attack personal demons in a deliberate way. Indeed, much of what Smith does as an actor is outward. Even in this past Summer’s Hancock, when he had to play sullen and disconnected, his moroseness seemed to come from the exterior of his character. While he’s done good work in many films, Smith seems wrong for Dae-su’s complicated dimensions.

And since when has Spielberg shuttled his famous feel good framework to delve into the depraved. Oldboy would be a better challenge for Quentin Tarantino, Darren Aronofsky, or David Fincher than the man who made dinos and darling little aliens into cinematic stalwarts. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with mixing things up a bit, to fly outside your ‘worked before’ ways. Even something like Munich played indirectly into his larger than life, broader in scope designs. Perhaps if the right script came along, one anticipating the problems both men bring to the table, this version of Oldboy could work. But one senses that Smith, already betrothed to the terrible Akiva Goldsman (must be part of the Devil’s standard contractual lingo), will make sure things stay suspicious.

While one hopes that the story turns out to be a hoax, or better yet, a PR move to determine the industry reaction to such a pairing and project, fans should stop complaining and realize that an Americanized Oldboy was always part of the plan. The ‘who’ and ‘when’ were the only unsettled issues. If Smith and Spielberg pull it off – great. They will prove many a proposed pundit wrong. But if they take the material and turn it into something like City of Angels (the sappy, crappy Wings of Desire remake) or any number of cheap, charmless J-Horror revamps, everyone loses. Of course, Smith and Spielberg will retreat to their palatial positions as industry icons and go about their box office business. The fate of Park’s potent meditation on mankind and misery is another question entirely.

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