by Hope Madden
When contemplating Spike Lee’s new film Oldboy, don’t ask yourself why central character Joe Doucett was set free. It’s pointless to even ask why he was imprisoned in the first place. The real question is: why remake this movie?
Seriously, what was it about the experience of watching Chan-wook Park’s 2003 masterpiece of punishment that made Spike Lee want to make his own version? Did he see things he thought needed improvement? Thought the US audience wouldn’t sit through subtitles? Or more likely, thought we needed a watered down, moralistic version?
The thing about the original Oldboy it that you just can’t unsee that film. There’s no way to watch the reboot without comparing. If you haven’t seen the original, then you still have the fresh perspective on the mystery unraveling, as Joe finds himself strangely incarcerated for 20 years, then even more mysteriously set free.
But if you have seen the original, then you, like me, may have wailed aloud the first time you heard someone planned to make an English language version, certain as you were that they would gut the tale, sterilize it, tidy it up, give it heart.
But then you saw the first couple ads for Lee’s version, and you thought – well, good cast (Josh Brolin, Sam Jackson, Elizabeth Olsen, Sharlto Copley). And the ads suggested a very close approximation to the original. But in your heart you knew Brolin was no Min-sik Choi and Lee is no Chan-wook Park.
Obviously, both are extremely talented, but the film is a mismatch to their particular gifts. Lee struggles to find a tone, and while Brolin’s transformation impresses, it feels stale and safe when compared to the mania Choi brought to the role.
Most damagingly, screenwriter Mark Protosevich is not up to the task of adapting the original screenplay, or the manga that spawned it.
No, apparently we need a heart. We need a hero. We need a straightforward story where, though details are lurid, lessons are learned. Tidied where it shouldn’t be, sloppy elsewhere (Copley could really have dialed down the Dr. Evil), Oldboy has trouble on every front.
Plot summary for a review of Oldboy will not stand. Even a neutered, disappointing retread deserves to keep all its secrets intact. But Lee and Protosevich pull punch after punch that Park landed with relish, and their reigned-in, moralistic mess of a film won’t satisfy newcomers or fans.