Whenever a foreign film gains international fame, a Hollywood remake is annoyingly inevitable. 2003’s revenge thriller Oldboy shook audiences around the world, winning the Grand Prix at Cannes and wowing critics and audiences alike. It became a classic of sickening twists and psychologically grisly turns, due in credit to an amazing turn by actor Choi Min-Sik and amazing filmmaking by writer/director Park Chan-Wook. Steven Spielberg and Will Smith nearly signed on for the American version, and, naturally, the internet reacted violently. They passed, but their hired screenwriter didn’t: Mark Protesvich wrote I Am Legend, and his writing is as poor here. Worse yet, a creatively stagnant Spike Lee was plumped into the director’s chair. Expectations plummeted, as did mine. As it turns out, while Lee’s Oldboy undeniably fails as a remake, as a pulpy genre piece, it works.
Oldboy is a strange tale, and to sum it up in a few sentences makes it sound all the stranger. A middle-aged mess of a man is abducted and imprisoned for 20 years (15 in the original), but, in a twist of fate, is let out. What follows is a classic game of cat and mouse, but it’s a clever swerve from the norm to make it so unclear who’s the cat and who’s the mouse. An impressive cast has been assembled, led by Josh Brolin playing main character Joe Doucett, and is supported by Elizabeth Olson, Samuel L. Jackson, and Shartlo Copley. The main narrative thrust is a violent mystery story, and to that end it is a success. Joe goes from person to person and clue to clue to unravel his mystery, and genre hijinks ensue. For instance, sneaking around in occupied houses on all fours is silly, but it’s a silliness B movies get away with. Action sequences shy away from shaky cam, letting the dazzling fight choreography do the talking. It’s a compliment I’ve had the pleasure to pay more lately, hopefully signaling a decline in this obnoxious trend. For those who don’t know, Oldboy features an iconic single-take hallway sequence, one that has nearly a million views on YouTube for that clip alone. The new version doesn’t match up to the original, after all; how could it? It’s nevertheless an incredible feat of planning, and the results are thrilling.
The imprisonment sequence isn’t, though. Brolin’s inconsistent performance didn't help, and one wonders if Brolin had ever eased into the role (even if he’s mostly fine). In a big change from the original film where the main character is painted as a sympathetic schmuck who needed a helping hand, Protesvich’s screenplay has him as the kind of guy even your most sweet-tempered friend wouldn’t mind punching in the face. Oldboy opens with ten merciless minutes of Joe being an overaggressive jackass, and it takes far too long for audiences to care about him. Unfortunately, problems continue past the casting and characterizations. Oldboy may be the best advertisement for an Apple product you’ve ever seen: not only do both the good and bad guys use the iPhone 5S, but even with 20 years in total isolation and little-to-no knowledge of computers let alone the internet, Joe learns to use MAC OS X in mere minutes. It’s that easy, folks! I wish I could say such a funny oversight was the biggest logic gap in the movie, but it’s far from. Oldboy is chock full of awkward contrivances that mire the plot and characters into obscurity. My advice? Try not to think about them.
The original has its fair share of contrivances too, but there’s a crucial difference between both adaptations, and it proves to be one of the most crippling flaws of the newer. 2003’s is a mythic, operatic, grandly-staged tale that works as much as a fable as it does a drama. Park uses heavy stylization throughout, and as a consequence Oldboy’s style and story are put in high priority next to the raw logic of the plot. But Protesvich and Lee made a mistake. 2013’s Oldboy is too literal. For the most part, the drama is played straight, and it doesn’t really work. A thematically rich premise becomes a ridiculous one, as do the bizarre friendships Joe forms once released. Drastic changes in the ending and overall story rip out the heart and soul of the movie, leaving nothing but a surface layer shell. It’s an insulting reminder of the original. Still, genre lovers will find much to enjoy, especially with Lee’s aesthetic choices. He doesn’t stick to one single style throughout, and in different instances uses shaky cam, montages of static shot close-ups, and carefully coordinated crane shots. It’s not close to stylistically daring, but he doesn’t play it safe either. There’s also a sense he intended to mimic the techniques of South Korean cinema, the country of the original. This is both in movement and in mood and if it was his goal, it was an effective one. Sharlto Copley’s vampiric performance caters to this idea, with him speaking in the same soft register as many of the villains of Asian cinema. Lee gives Oldboy a credence it wouldn’t have had otherwise, and even if Spielberg, ironically, may have provided a better adaptation, it probably would have been a worse movie.
Oldboy is an Oreo without the frosting. It may not match up to the original cookie, but it’s still pretty good.