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December 2, 2013

Why did Spike Lee remake Oldboy? By this I do not mean to ask why the film was remade; as the second and most famous installment of Park Chan-wook’s so-called “Vengeance Trilogy”, it was only a matter of time before some American studio tried to monetize it. No, I ask why Spike Lee, in particular, remade this film. There is nothing about it that leaps out as a subject of particular interest to Lee, and nothing in the remake shows Lee’s particular handiwork.

Make no mistake: Lee is an artist. But this job called for a forger — a director with just enough technical ability to accomplish the task at hand and otherwise get out of the way. Lee’s and Park’s talents are not just in their impressive repertoires of cinematic techniques, but in the particular textures they infuse into their works across a broad range of subjects. The Vengeance Trilogy is so close to the heart of Park’s style, and so far from that of Lee’s; with none of his own hooks to latch onto and little fluency with Park’s, Lee’s efforts can only produce a bland, by-the-numbers imitation. Spike Lee remaking Park Chan-wook is like asking Archibald Motley to paint something that could be passed off as the work of Hieronymus Bosch.

The basic story elements are as before: Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) is an awful human being in 1993. After mangling a business deal for his ad agency he gets blackout drunk and wakes up in a prison cell made to look like a motel room. He spends the next twenty years in solitary confinement on a steady diet of sugar cereal and takeout dumplings.

A television shows him glimpses of the world outside. Presidents come and go; the World Trade Center buildings fall. News reports say that his wife has been brutally raped and murdered, and the evidence points to him as the prime suspect. Some America’s Most Wanted knockoff periodically dredges up the case, Joe’s mysterious disappearance, and the growth of his daughter, Mia (Elvy Yost), into an accomplished young cellist.

Joe begins to write to Mia — letters which he can’t send, but hopes to present to her some day — and dedicates himself to getting in shape. And then one day he wakes up in a steamer trunk in the middle of a field. He’s wearing a brand-new suit, carrying thousands of dollars in cash and an iPhone, all courtesy of a mysterious wealthy man (Sharlto Copley) who presents Joe with two questions: who is he, and why did he lock Joe up for twenty years?

With the help of his old school buddy (Michael Imperioli) and a young charity worker who came from some hard times herself (Elizabeth Olsen), Joe begins to track down the answers — and his daughter — starting with his jailer (Samuel L. Jackson) and ending with the secrets buried in his own past.

Obviously, some of the details have been rearranged from Park’s version. Normally this might be to provide some new interest to those familiar with the original, but anyone who remembers that will have no trouble seeing exactly what’s coming here, so I’m not sure what the purpose is here.

The underlying story Joe must discover is also tweaked in a way that, along with Copley’s mincing performance, comes off as more than a little homophobic. Mark Protosevich’s rewritten screenplay seems to know that Oldboy is supposed to shock, but it doesn’t know what purposes the shocks are meant to serve.

Similarly, the film has plenty of graphic and even gory violence like the original did, but Lee really doesn’t seem to have Park’s taste for horror and depravity. It feels like everyone is just going through the motions. Even the famous corridor scene is recreated in a single, continuous shot — well, almost — which drips with technical proficiency, and yet it comes off as lifeless and staged.

Yes, it’s true that the producers carved over half an hour off of Lee’s version — leading to its billing as a Spike Lee “film” rather than the usual “joint” — and so the blame can’t be laid entirely at his feet here. Still, it’s hard to see what Lee was supposed to bring to the project in the first place. The result is a tepid rehash with nothing to offer fans of the original, and nothing to show newcomers why anyone would be.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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