Make no mistake about it, the original Oldboy is one of the most disturbingly twisted films ever created. It is also a violent, but masterful tale of karma and revenge. So, needless to say, Spike Lee’s remake has some lofty expectations to live up to.
Like the 2003 Korean-made original, Spike Lee’s Oldboy is the story of a degenerate businessman who is kidnapped after a drunken bender and imprisoned for twenty years. Here, that man is Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin), a sleazy advertising executive who neglects his three year old daughter and verbally assaults his ex-wife. Brolin portrays Doucett’s psychosis and post-traumatic paranoia and anger with fervor. It’s the drunken degenerate part of the character that comes off a little awkward for him. For twenty years he is confined to a window-less hotel room where he is fed the same meals and subjected to the same TV shows over and over again until one day he is abruptly released. This sets in motion a wave of violent cat and mouse games (This film isn’t remotely for the squeamish) that sees Doucett attempting to track down his captor and find his long lost daughter.
It’s inevitable to compare this version to the original, after all, it follows its predecessor almost to a tee with only a few necessary variations here and there. But somewhere along the way, something feels unpleasantly different. It’s still suspenseful and filled with gory action sequences, and the twists will be equally shocking to any newcomer who is unfamiliar with the South Korean version. But one can’t help but feel as if Spike and co. missed the point of it all.
Brolin’s Doucett is tormented, and his miscreant lifestyle makes it more than understandable as to why he could be subjected to such a horrendous punishment. However, the other characters seemed to be lost in translation in this version. Elizabeth Olsen’s Marie helps Doucett along his quest, but we never get a strong reason as to why she’d bother putting herself in harms way to help a violent stranger. Sharlto Copley (District 9, Elysium) is affectively creepy as Doucett’s captor, but unlike the Korean persona, we never get a sense that he feels tormented by his own lifestyle and decisions. The narrative also seems to clump together and at times seems to try too hard to convey the same message. Do we need five minutes of a drunken stupor to realize that Joe Doucett is a douche? It also would’ve been nice if, like the original, they explained why the movie is even called Oldboy.
These imperfections may seem nitpicky, but they’re so very important. With a subject matter so illicit and vulgar, there has to be a sense of purpose and reason in all of it. Otherwise, the audience just leaves feeling confused and disturbed rather than awkwardly amazed. The original provided the latter, Spike Lee’s version… not so much.
FINAL GRADE: C+