We all know how many Asian to American remakes have been made over the years. There’s been the good, The Departed, the decent like The Ring and the really bad, like The Eye. It is a trend that will never stop, as great ideas in foreign movies are desired in the English language and producers see great opportunities to make money from them. Spike Lee is the latest to take on a remake of a foreign classic, with his version of Park Chan-wook’s South Korean Classic, Oldboy. Lee’s version stars Josh Brolin, Elisabeth Olsen and Sharlto Copley in the primary roles.
A drunk, arrogant salesman (Brolin) is randomly imprisoned for 20 years and then inexplicably released into the world, with basically no idea why. He was framed for his ex-wife’s murder and his daughter is out in the world somewhere, so he sets out to both find her and find and destroy the individual responsible for his imprisonment. He gets help from an old bartender friend and a young nurse named Marie (Olsen) in his quest to find answers.
Reviewing a remake is very difficult, especially when you adored the original so much, as I did. When I first saw Park Chan-wook’s version I had never seen anything like it before, and it blew me away. So going into this remake, it is obviously going to be difficult to provide an unbiased review. Spike Lee is certainly known for having a very distinct independent way of doing things and right from the get go the film takes on a vibe and atmosphere that for me seemed to work and was not the same as the original but effective in its own way.
This leads to my first problem with the film. It was inconsistent to me in its mood and its presentation. The film starts with a much longer back story of Brolin’s character, which I believe was intended to make him seem like a real douche bag. For me this hurt the mystery of the whole imprisonment, as I had that small inclination that he really deserved it. This wasn’t what I got from the original, and for me it wasn’t effective. But then during the imprisonment, I thought Lee did a great job of transferring that same strange, bizarre mental process that our ‘hero’ is going through, and it was disturbing, amusing and heart wrenching at the same time. But then as soon as he is released, the mood once again became all to ‘plain’ and real world. There just wasn’t that same dark and surreal tone that the original had. Spike is allowed to give the film his own identity, but at times I felt that the film had no real identity and for a unique concept like this, that isn’t ok.
The performances in general were great, and I thought Brolin was perfectly cast, as was Olsen. Other than the overdone beginning ten minutes, I thought Brolin was the perfect balance of emotional and pure rage and vengeance. Samuel L Jackson did his usual type cast thing, but he did it in a perfectly serviceable manner, although unfortunately he is somewhat of a cartoon at times and that wasn’t great for a movie like this in my opinion. Then there was Sharlto Copley, who I have absolutely loved in everything I’ve seen him in. Except this. I won’t go into it too much to avoid spoilers, but he was just flat out bad in my opinion. So all in all, this was a mixed bag for me.
One of the things that the original was known for was some incredibly well orchestrated and original scenes, particularly its fight scenes. One scene in particular, involving a hammer and a lot of bad guys was performed using just one extended take, and is known as one of the best ever. I couldn’t wait to see a modern take on this, and perhaps having seen True Detective’s awesome one-taker I was a little hopeful. Well, Lee really let me down. This was probably not his fault, as the studio may not have allowed it, but it wasn’t done in one take at all, and the bad guys were literally dancing around like it was Westside Story. It still had a little sense of exhilaration at times, but not enough to hide some really, really bad work. A particularly awful section of the film also involved a scene where our hero inexplicably appeared to kill a random college athlete in the process of beating the whole team savagely. This isn’t a Jason Statham movie.
It sounds like I’m focusing on the negatives, which is what I was afraid of. I should point out, that it was not all bad. The film was able to present basically the exact same story and killer twists in a really effective manner, in terms of pure plot development. I think if I didn’t already know the plot, it would have been very effective in its execution. I think that they got a lot of stuff right, and I think that the last 20 minutes were really good. The ending I won’t get into too much, but it isn’t identical to the original and that’s ok. I didn’t love it, but that’s because I loved the original. It isn’t a bad conclusion at all it’s own right.
All in all this was a tough review, and having seen the original I found it hard to enjoy this as much as I might have. However, for those more mainstream viewers who have never seen the original, I think that this one did a nice job of bringing it over without destroying too much of the concept. I didn’t think it was executed as well in many instances, but in others it was done brilliantly. Overall a solid effort from Spike Lee, that I didn’t love, but that certainly deserved a bit more praise than I think it’s getting from critics.