The original 2003 Oldboy ranks as one of the greatest films I have ever seen. The 2013 remake is to that movie like an Elvis impersonator is to Elvis. Not just in the sense that the impersonator can only ape the moves of the original, but in that he arrives years too late to the scene. He can only remind people of some glory that it was once possible to experience for the first time.
What’s most disappointing is how Oldboy ended up being this thin despite some fairly heavyweight talent on board. The director was Spike Lee, who even when I have found his films not to my taste has never taken the easy road with his material. Mark Protosevich adapted the script from the Korean original, and Josh Brolin has consistently had my attention as a good actor (W., True Grit). But somehow, it all adds up to little more than a dutiful going through the motions. And yes, the original story — with all of its appalling plot twists — has been preserved, but given how strangely uncompelling the finished product is, maybe pickled would be a better word.
Those who have seen the original movie will know what I’m talking about, and they’ll be nodding their heads in recognition at every recapitulated plot point. Joe Doucett (Brolin) is a vodka-swilling scumbag who works for an ad agency, with an estranged wife and little girl and a boss who’s ready to fire him on a moment’s notice. After blowing a major account by trying to horn in on the client’s wife, Joe goes out and drinks himself blind, and wakes up in what he thinks is a hotel room. It’s a private prison, with no phone and no knob on the door. Through the TV in the wall he learns he’s been framed for the murder of his family, and catches glimpses of his daughter on a true-crime show.
Twenty years go by, during which time Joe disciplines himself, writes confessionals to his little girl, and almost engineers an escape plan. (From my notes: "If he goes in as Gordon Gekko, he comes back out as Henry Rollins.") But then he’s set free, with a wallet full of cash and a cell phone, at the other end of which is a strange man (Sharlto Copley) who taunts him with the possibility of finding out why all this happened. His sole human connections on the outside consist of an old school chum who runs a bar (Michael Imperioli), and Marie (Elizabeth Olsen), a volunteer doctor whose sense of pity for the helpless becomes something a little more full-blown when she encounters Joe.
Much noise and worry was raised about whether or not the film would recapitulate some of the more stomach-turning plot points of the original. It does, but in a way that’s part of the problem. It’s faithful in the ways that a photocopy is faithful: it has all the information, but none of the color. It reproduces the nasty scene in which Joe discovers his prison, torments one of his captors for information, and then fights his way back out with a knife stuck in his shoulder blade. It quotes individual shots from the original — e.g., the moment where Joe sticks his head out of the food slot in his door and screams for help. And, yes, it keeps all the material people were worried wouldn’t make it into an American film, even an R-rated one. The only major change is to the epilogue, but with a movie this fundamentally wan it doesn’t amount to much. The truly great moments of the original — the original kidnapping, the reading of the photo album, the delirious score — simply don't exist here in any appreciable way.
What’s most missing is any sense of perspective or attitude on this material, and that’s what’s dismaying about it. Lee normally makes even the most straightforward of his films (The Inside Man) feel less straightforward. He's put an individual spin on every ball he's ever thrown. Here, he has a whole slew of subjects to tear into that are well within his rubric — the power differentials created by privilege, for one — but somehow they all end up as mere ingredients, not themes. Word had it that Lee fought with the studio to deliver a 140-minute cut, but I’m not sure more would have made a difference. The whole approach itself feels flat, left-of-center, lacking in the cutting black humor and philosophical electricity that made the original such a wonder.
A few things work. Brolin and Olsen are both effective in their roles — Olsen's acting in particular is exceptionally subtle, hinting at how she is responding to this situation in ways she's not conscious of — and there’s a fun minor role occupied by Samuel. L. Jackson as the prison-keeper. Sharlto Copley as Joe’s nemesis, though, is so mannered and weird he’s impossible to take seriously, even in a movie this nominally outré. He doesn’t have the somber gravity demanded by the role, something Christian Bale (who was actually tapped, but declined to come on board) might have provided. And while the stunt team does an impressive job of staging their own version of the all-in-one-take hallway fight sequence, I kept thinking the mere fact they were being this faithful was more of a liability than an asset.
The original film was itself an adaptation, that of a manga whose storyline actually bore little resemblance to the movie Park Chan-wook delivered. Good, I thought: he’d taken the original story — one about a good deal less than you might think, ironically enough — and ran with it in a whole new direction. I was hoping, maybe against hope, that Lee and his team would go back to the original material and infuse it with something only they could bring to it. The worst thing about Spike Lee’s Oldboy is that it could well have been made by most anyone, and that’s not something I want to say about a Spike Lee film.