Spike Lee has been understandably adamant about describing his version of Oldboy as a “reinterpretation” rather than a remake. Before Chan-wook Park’s classic 2003 Korean film there was the Japanese manga, making this new American take on the material the third incarnation of the tale. So, in the interest of giving Lee’s film a fair shot, I’m going to avoid comparison to Park’s film as much as I possibly can. But in order to do that I need to tell you one thing:
Spike Lee’s Oldboy is not as good as Chan-wook Park’s Oldboy. There’s no contest here. It’s very unlikely that we’ll look back on it in 10 years as some kind of cult classic. But is Spike Lee’s Oldboy any good at all? Actually… yes.
During the first 10 minutes of the film I was worried I might be watching the worst movie of 2013. The opening segment features Josh Brolin’s bloated, drunken Joe Doucett in the throes of an epic bender, systematically destroying both his personal and professional life. It’s painful. The tone isn’t just off, it’s curdled. A sour, mangy version of something that should be clean and efficient. But once Doucett is imprisoned, Lee finds his stride and his version of Oldboy begins to sing a little. The hotel sequence is fantastic – the shorthand Lee and Brolin developed during the shoot is palpable here and it’s a great mix of specificity and improvisation.
After 20 years (10 more than the manga, 5 more than the Korean film) Doucett is released and begins the arduous task of figuring out why he was locked away in the first place. 40 pounds lighter, sober, efficient and surprisingly youthful, Doucett tries to put the pieces together while reassembling his old life. He reconnects with his old friend Chucky (Michael Imperioli) and forms a new bond with social worker/recovering addict Marie (Elizabeth Olsen) while searching for his long lost daughter. Some of this stuff feels rote, like it’s supposed to be in this version of Oldboy because it was in another version of Oldboy.
The main issue with the film is that Lee and screenwriter Mark Protosevich clearly had an ambition to explore the material’s themes in an American context, but they can’t really decide on an angle. The concept of revenge means something completely different here than it does in the East, but whatever re-assessing they might be doing doesn’t really come across. The film’s adherence to eastern iconography (dumplings, among other things) muddles it even further. It feels like bets were hedged when it came to the actual “Americanization” of the film and I can’t tell if Samuel L. Jackson looking like he came out of Demolition Man is a weird nod to 1993 American cinema or a weird nod 2003 Korean cinema.
Still, even if all the gears here don’t work there are enough functional ones spinning to keep Lee’s interpretation engaging and entertaining. Sharlto Copley is innately watchable as the film’s villain and there are some impressive set pieces (though there’s a certain hammer fight that feels oddly fractured). Brolin’s charisma goes a long way towards carrying the piece and Lee ably crafts a serviceable film. There are even some changes to the 3rd act of this interpretation that will actually keep those who have seen the original on their toes a bit.* Spike Lee’s Oldboy is just good enough to recommend seeing, mainly because I want to see the reactions of all the unsuspecting families who decide to make it their Thanksgiving trip to the movies.
*Speaking of people who have seen the 2003 film, I’m not going to confirm or deny if the ending has been changed. However, I must give credit where credit is due – the 2013 Oldboy is surprisingly bold for a mainstream American film. Several members of my audience were screaming in shock.