Adrian: All this time and you never stopped to ask the most fundamental question of all …
All too often, brilliant foreign films are remade for a faction of the American audience that simply refuses to read subtitles. On rare occasion, such as Matt Reeves’ remake of the Swedish film LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, LET ME IN), the remake brings something new to the table, and is just as enjoyable as the original. In other cases, the remake succeeds (David Fincher’s remake of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO), by changing enough of the major plot points to make it a strong, standalone film. Unfortunately, Spike Lee’s remake of Park Chan-wook’s beloved, revenge tale, OLDBOY, is neither one of these rare occasions.
The film opens on October 8th , 1993 as advertising executive, Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin), is conducting his daily activities. Said activities on this particular day include getting wasted and obscenely hitting on an important potential client’s wife, while her husband is in the bathroom. After screwing up that deal, Joe follows a prostitute carrying a yellow umbrella, then blacks out, waking up the next morning in a strange, hotel room. He tries to leave the room, but the door has no handle. He opens the curtains, but there are no windows. After banging on the door, the only response being a tray with dumplings and a bottle of vodka slid underneath it, Joe realizes he is not going anywhere. Joe is not going anywhere for the next 20 years to be exact. To make all matters worse, Joe turns on the TV in his room and sees a news report saying that police are searching for him and hold him accountable for the murder of his ex-wife.
Through the 20 years, Joe quits drinking, gets in shape, and sees the America’s major events (9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the inauguration of Barack Obama) unfold over the television. One day, he suddenly awakens in a Louis Vuitton suitcase in the middle of a field, with nothing except the suit he is wearing, a stack of cash, and an iPhone (Joe’s reaction to the iPhone is quite amusing). He is given no explanation for why he was locked up or more importantly, why he is being set free. Joe receives a phone call from a mysterious man telling him that unless he figures out the answers to these questions, his kidnapped daughter will be killed.
Through his journey to find answers, Joe is assisted by a kind, young, woman named Marie (Elizabeth Olsen), and has multiple run-ins with a white-mohawked, Samuel L. Jackson. The tone is there, the cinematography is beautiful, and we’ve even still got the twisted ending from the original, but something just isn’t quite right. For the most part actually, the film simply feels off. OLDBOY is the kind of tale that really only works in an Asian setting and he American landscape feels all wrong for the film from the very beginning. Brolin is good in the lead role, but his Joe Doucett it cannot compare with the incomparable Choi Min-sik’s Oh Dae-su from the original film. One of the issues with Brolin’s Joe is that we spend far too much time with him at the beginning of the film. In the original film, Dae-su is captured within five minutes of the opening credits. But in Lee’s film, there is about fifteen minutes of backstory before Joe is imprisoned. In these fifteen minutes, we see what a jerk Joe really is, and this makes it quite difficult to sympathize with him after he gets locked up.
The cinematography by Sean Bobbitt in the film is truly fantastic. Bobbitt is likely be a big Oscar contender this year, though not for his work on this film, but rather his work on 12 YEARS A SLAVE instead. Each shot in perfectly composed, and the film’s dark colour scheme and detail are captured well. When one thinks of the original film, the first scene that comes to mind is one that is known as “The hallway (or hammer) fight”. This scene featured Dae-su taking down dozens of men in a hallway in one very long shot. Lee obviously knew that he could not remake the film without including some form of this memorable scene, and he does. Rather than taking place in one hallway, Lee splits it up into three floors, making it appear as if it is from a video game. Just when you think Lee is going to keep the three-floor fight scene in one long shot, he breaks it on the second floor. Doing this, Lee lost the most impressive aspect from the original scene. Maybe Lee did this to show that he is putting his own spin on the classic, or maybe what was supposed to be one shot just wouldn’t work.
The film must be given credit for staying true to the original’s shockingly twisted ending, an ending so twisted, that many were sure it would be watered down for the American version. But while the end of the original left viewers’ mouths agape in horrified, wondrous awe, Jones’ version just leaves an odd taste in the mouth. OLDBOY is an exemplary case of a remake that really never should have happened. Hollywood needs to leave perfection alone.