There’s not much I can really say about Spike Lee’s remake of Chan-wook Park’s 2003 entry in the Vengeance trilogy, Oldboy. I signed a piece of paper drawn up by the studio that unequivocally states that I cannot give away any of the plot twists of the film despite them all being relatively the same between the two films. Not only does this presuppose that the audience for Oldboy 2.0 is too stupid to go and seek out a foreign film for themselves, but that Lee has created some sort of daring new vision for his version of events.
Bullshit. Despite some exceptional cinematography, a moderately interesting first hour, and a solid leading performance from Josh Brolin, this is ugly, cynical, lazy filmmaking made to please no one except possibly the person who made it; presumably as a joke and glaring middle finger to anyone who had any affinity for the original film. But good on the studio for robbing critics of the one ultimate point of comparison that would ultimately prove Lee’s utter mediocrity and how despite being a mostly faithful remake he skews the specifics to dull any kind of impact they would ultimately have.
Advertising executive Joe Doucette (Brolin) is a lout who cares more about heavy drinking, money, hitting on assistants, and his job (more or less in that order) than he does his own daughter. Following an unfortunate bender gone horribly awry, Doucette wakes up in a nondescript hotel room from which there is no escape and no window to the outside world. In that room he will remain for 20 years, imprisoned by a mysterious figure from his past, plied only with cheap vodka, pills, and dumplings. He’s also been framed for the murder of his ex-wife. Upon his release, Joe’s mind immediately turns to bloody revenge, but his very freedom is part of a larger plan designed to drive Joe to madness.
So close to the original story in terms of plot point specifics until the last 2 minutes or so, the script from Mark Protosevich (Thor, The Cell, Poseidon) never raises any interest beyond “who cares”. Even at its most faithful it’s impossible to shake that I have seen this exact movie before. It all comes undone when the script and Lee’s direction suddenly decides to blunt a lot of what made the first film special to begin with. Why make something that’s nearly shot for shot and point for point the same film and then just change the biggest things that made the original special just for the sake of not looking like they just made a bullet point rehash of the same material? It goes from a noble, but pointless effort on the level of Gus Van Sant’s reboot of Psycho or David Gordon Green’s word-for-word-but-translated effort Prince Avalanche, but directed by someone who wants to make the film feel somewhat bigger.
Lee has no clue how to make this story bigger aside from turning it into an outright cartoon. Instead of making Joe’s journey have any emotional weight, Lee presupposes that people who go and see the film are only looking to get off on the bloodlust and eventual transgression of the story. It’s an interesting point to be made, but when Lee proves incapable of being able to handle the film’s brutality with any kind of nuance or at the very least excitement, it reduces the film and the story to a level of pure comedy.
And no, he can’t handle any of the film’s major, memorable set pieces with any degree of assurance or technical craft. Once he has to start staging action or moments that in the original approached almost giallo-like levels, Lee bumbles around thinking that adding an irreverent sense of satire will right the ship, and he’s sorely mistaken. He makes a tale that deftly avoided being exploitative into something outright insulting. Again, I can’t say why. Thanks, airtight legal document (which even hilariously stated that I couldn’t even draw pictures of what happens in the film to try and explain my point).
For what it’s worth, Brolin would be perfect casting in any remake of the film, ideal or otherwise. He looks and sounds the part of a man being torn apart from years of inactivity and thinking back upon his own transgressions. He also has the physicality to make the character believable when the rest of the film isn’t. Ditto Elizabeth Olsen as a sympathetic outreach worker that tends to Joe as a private nurse. She brings a certain level of competence to her character’s sordid, drug abusing past that gives the film just a slight dusting of poignancy. The film’s cinematography is also marvellous, courtesy of 12 Years a Slave and The Place Beyond the Pines DP Sean Bobbitt, who does a great job conveying both life passing Joe by and his inevitable displacement in a world that he can no longer make sense of.
However, there’s nothing nice that I can say about the performance of Sharlto Copley, who shows up just past the halfway point as a chief villain. If Lee and Petrosevich comprise 75% of why the film doesn’t work, then Copley takes the other 25% under his arm and runs off with it. It’s a performance so hammy and so absolutely ludicrous that not even Nicolas Cage playing a Bond villain in a Roger Moore film could touch its awfulness. I hate ripping into actors performances (most of the time) because quite often they were just following direction. But there’s a reason why such bigger names like Christian Bale and Colin Firth walked away from taking this part, and Copley should have realized why that was. Instead, he throws himself right into a terribly written part, complete with a fey British accent that grates more and more with every passing second. It’s the worst performance in any major studio film this year.
I beg and implore you to stay as far away from Oldboy as possible and seek out the still somewhat divisive original film. If you hate it, you have no reason to watch the remake. If you like it, you have even less reason to see the remake. It’s not even worth seeing to have a dialogue about how it gets everything wrong about the original. Kudos to Brolin and Bobbitt for saving it from being worthless in every possible way.