The collective groan that greeted the trailer for Spike Lee's retelling of Oldboy amused me. A few decades ago it would be unlikely that many people in the general population would have known that the film is a remake of the great Korean film of the same name. Instead we would have watched the trailer, possibly been intrigued by the scenario, and wondered what a stylist and social-conscious director like Lee would have done with the material. Now everyone gets to cry foul about Hollywood running out of ideas and people nurse imagined wounds about their favored product getting ruined.
Now that I've watched Lee's take on Oldboy, I am left with a few thoughts. Most of them are positive, as Lee managed to successfully convert the culturally specific taste of the original film into something that Americans can consume. But with that success comes an important question about adaptations since Park Chan-wook's original story was itself an adaptation of the manga. Is this version of Oldboy needed when there's a perfectly good one barely a decade old?
I have a hard time saying no, because there's not enough different with this version of Oldboy to completely justify its existence. I still enjoyed myself, and there's an awful lot of skill in the performances Lee coaxes from the players as well as his own twists to the material. But this is one I can only recommend to those unfamiliar with the source material and looking for a sadistic time with a movie, or for the ones who withstood any cynicism about the remake and are still curious. It's a small cross-section of the movie-viewing population, but they're likely to be pleased in the same way I was.
Oldboy's protagonist is one of the most pathetic in Lee's canon. Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) is a perpetually drunk wreck of a man who screams at his ex-wife during the day, breaks at lunch to hit on the wives of his clients, and gets pass-out drunk at night. After another night on the sauce he wakes up in a hotel room built into a large prison where he is fed dumplings and vodka for twenty years. During this time his only contact with the outside world is through his television and he learns that an assailant raped and killed his ex-wife, leaving him the primary suspect and his daughter grows up to hate him. Then, just like that, he's released without a warning and an ominous man gives Joe four days to solve the mystery of his imprisonment.
Lee cloaks the events of Oldboy in a constant stream of vile directed at corporate America. Joe is a salary man of the worst stripe, written as a pathetic creature who survives from what he can skim off others and expecting their gratitude for it. To Oldboy's bitter credit, Lee never gives Joe a humanizing moment. He starts off a miserable bastard who thinks that the world owes him something and ends only a hair or two off from his terrible origin. It might come off a shade too misanthropic, and Lee doubles-down on this darkness instead of engaging in any of the cartoon-like violence of the original.
He opts to tell Joe's story as one of a gutter legend. Joe combs through the underside of private academies and once-prosperous businesses while his flamboyant opponent, played with great relish by Sharlto Copley, surveys Joe's progress from the top of a billion dollar tower. The economic distinctions of these designs are clear - everyone is suppressed with as little nourishment as possible until they're useful. As a result the world of Oldboy is bleak and monochrome, as if the years Joe spent in that hotel room have trained his eyes to only see in limited shades.
This means that Lee's normally extreme stylistic sensibilities are mostly sidelined for the muted color palette and the intense performances. It's an interesting decision in light of the excesses of the Korean original and Lee's penchant for giving into the same, but it's the right one for this film. The one exception is Lee's take on some of the memorable bits from the original - especially the hammer fight. Lee frames Doucett through a chain-link enclosure and lets Brolin's rage fuel the rest. It's a fitting given the idea that he is nothing better than a parasite as he drains his attackers of their life.
As fitting as the visuals are, this Oldboy is not as dependent on its style for the effect. Brolin gives an exquisite performance that benefits from the extended prologue of Doucett in the hotel. We get to see the depths that his selfish rage can sink to before hurting the innocent in the wake of his vengeance. Elizabeth Olsen is a bit less impressive as a clinic employee who helps the avenging Joe, but only because she's continued her steady stride into the sort of troubled, beautiful Other that Scarlett Johansson used to get called for.
All of this combines to a satisfying package, but one that goes down like an empty calorie. In this sense Oldboy can serve as a tool for other directors moving forward. The framework is so strong that it can be adapted to almost any place and time with various cultural signifiers substituted in and out to shape the story and fit whatever present it needs to fall into. But those changes are not enough, it needs to pulse with some kind of urgency that it can lay claim to. If not, it's just a calling card of style and little more - which might not be a bad thing for a young director, but not someone with the credentials and career of Spike Lee.
Directed by Spike Lee.
Screenplay written by Mark Protosevich.
Starring Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, and Sharlto Copley.