PLOT: When an inconspicuous advertising executive is suddenly imprisoned he finds that his entire world is being torn apart. After his unexpected release twenty years later, he is given the opportunity to find the man responsible and discover the reason for his captivity.
OLDBOY is a first for director Spike Lee. Unlike his previous pictures, this remake of Park Chan-wook’s Korean cult classic is “A Spike Lee Film.” That is the biggest surprise that fans of the original will find in Lee’s translation as every film of his before has been credited as “A Spike Lee Joint.” This solidly cast feature is not in any way a shot for shot remake, yet it is still shockingly similar with a few upgrades to try to add a little suspense to this revenge drama. The story of an unassuming man held captive for several years, who is finally released with the assignment of finding out the reason for his imprisonment is very familiar aside from the number of years locked up as well as a few other details. This time around, it is a very long twenty years of eating dumplings and finding out tragic news that he has been framed for murder.
It is near impossible to not compare Lee’s remake to Chan-wook’s cinematic masterwork which was released in 2003. Looking back at the striking and dare I say brilliant feature, it has certainly aged well. Even going in knowing every twist and turn the little nuances the director added feel impressively relevant today. With that in mind, while not nearly as flawed as I had expected, all those little strokes of genius and moral ambiguity are lost in the update. That is not to say Lee’s take is a bad film, it is actually a competently put-together thriller that audiences not familiar with the story may entertain in. At its best, the cast is top-notch with Josh Brolin playing a perfectly good anti-hero and Elizabeth Olsen as a smart young woman touched by his plight. As for Sharlto Copley, he makes for a crafty and creepy villain of sorts with a heaping helping of baggage. There is some good to be found here. And we must not forget the always insanely entertaining Samuel L. Jackson who shows up, says "muther f*cker" and does his thing well.
Avoiding as many spoilers as I can, some of the changes I feel are appropriate to be addressed, so if you’d like to avoid spoilage skip to the next paragraph. Aside from a ton of extra nudity courtesy of Brolin, Copley and yes Olsen as well as edgier (bloodier) violence, this modern day telling ups the ante on using technology as a tool for the investigation. While the first film used an internet chatroom, this modern version puts Google to good use and even the popular music checking application “Shazam” as well. However, the biggest difference is the motivation for the villain and the final reveal. All that being said, it is not a major change but you can tell that Lee is aiming for a curveball with audiences who’ve watched the original film. Yet aside from a couple details, it is still far too familiar and most won’t be fooled by a couple of red-herrings.
Director Spike Lee seemingly plays very close to the original visually. However, without the narration used in the earlier film, he uses flashbacks heavily to complete the story. There is a far more simplistic structure for audiences to better understand the events taking place. The beauty of Park Chan-wook’s vision is the way it was revealed was not altogether simple and you had to pay attention. Lee and screenwriter Mark Protosavich (with manga credit to Garon Tsuchiya and Nobuaki Ninegishi) seem to follow a more straightforward path with a clear and obvious reasoning behind what is happening, the art house appeal is nearly obliterated. There is (misplaced) humor here, however some of that humor comes from the over-the-top violence where Brolin is breaking his enemy’s foot or blowing off someone’s head. The famous one-take battle sequence from the original of course shows up. The scene was apparently shot as one-take yet cut per the request of the studio. It’s a seriously brutal sequence, and it works well enough. However, it would have been interesting to see it as Lee had intended.
Spike Lee’s OLDBOY is well-crafted and offers a few shades of beauty thanks to cinematographer Sean Bobbitt. Visually this is an impressive looking tale with a few striking fight sequences. Lee manages to take much of the story from the manga as well as Chan-wook’s film and give it a modern update. Of course the mystery injected into the first film is almost entirely lost thanks to choosing a safer route to tell this story. The cast is good – and in Olsen’s case she makes for a much more likable leading lady – yet they can’t really elevate OLDBOY to much more than a decently made thriller.
With more nudity and more violence there is less of one very important factor… and that is the mysterious nature that helped make Chan-wook’s style so much more involving. The shock value here is enough to thrill audiences unfamiliar with the original film or the manga, and they may truly have a good time delving into this dark and seedy world. It’s a shame that while it detracted from the previous film slightly, the set up for the reveal felt all too obvious for those that have seen it before. This Spike Lee Film isn’t the disaster many thought it would be, yet there is very little impact or real substance. Technically speaking, this is simply a cold and calculated revenge thriller that is satisfied to offer a few shocks, good performances with a little sex and violence thrown in for good measure. Yet it offers nothing new to the revenge genre besides another useless remake.