Park Chan-wook's 2003 thriller Oldboy is, simply putting it, a masterpiece of revenge cinema. It's a cult classic and is regarded by many as one of the great Asian films of all time. So obviously Hollywood thought it'd be a great idea to remake it for a western audience. Many fans, including myself, were against this, but once news was released about the cast, my interest was suddenly peaked. With a cast including Josh Brolin and Elizabeth Olsen, and the controversial Spike Lee directing, it looked as if the Oldboy remake could legitimately be a quality film. My god, that is not the case. Lee's Oldboy is just an appalling film which doesn't know what tone to take. Initially I was interested to see what Lee would bring to the project, but at the end of the day, this is a shallow and pointless film. It's simply another unnecessary remake that doesn't come close to the original.
Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) is a businessman who is kidnapped and locked away in solitary confinement for 20 years. He is given no reason as to why and is subjected to the same routine throughout his stay. During his imprisonment, he learns that he has been framed for the murder of his wife and that his daughter is now living with a foster family. Once released, Joe is given the mission to find out why he was imprisoned and who is responsible, with the added motivation of saving his daughter. It is during this time that he befriends Marie (Elizabeth Olsen), a young nurse who wants to help Joe with his search for the truth.
Written by Mark Protosevich, Oldboy's biggest flaw is that it does not know what tone to take. When the film opened, it seemed as if Lee was going for a different approach to the source material, with a much more gritty style. However, that soon changes when he starts taking imagery seen in the original and unnecessarily shoe-horning it into the remake. It doesn't gel together. The original wasn't exactly a gritty movie - it was stylised and had a Hitchcockian element to it. The remake tries to be both but it simply does not work. For example, the scene in which Joe is released is done quite closely to the original, where he finds himself inside a suitcase, this time on a grassfield. In the original, it worked as the whole film had a surreal tone. With the remake, they've established a gritty style, and thus someone being locked into a suitcase just looks out-of-place.
To be fair, Protosevich doesn't completely follow the original story, and does make a few changes to the story. One of the most memorable aspects of the original Oldboy is the twist. The remake has one too, except with a few changes. While I don't think the result was good, I respect the decision of the writer. However, Protosevich's script has absolutely no subtlety at all. The character of Joe is just too one-sided. He's not exactly an interesting protagonist. From the opening of the film, Joe is a horrible person, who doesn't seem to care about his ex-wife and daughter and is an alcoholic. He just doesn't feel like a human-being. In the original, the protagonist Oh Dae-su was an alcoholic, but he still loved his daughter. He felt more relatable and human. A lot of his character is left to the viewer's interpretation, and whether he's a total jerk or not is not shoved into our faces. That's something this remake doesn't take into account - show, not tell. Everything is spelt out for the audience as if they're kids. Once Joe's imprisoned, the film starts to become a redemption story for him, which just feels so forced in my opinion.
Josh Brolin is definitely one of the best things about the movie. When I found out he was cast as the hero, I clapped. This was excellent casting, as he fit the bill perfectly. While he doesn't have much to work with considering how shallow his character is, he gets the job done and delivers an engaging performance. Elizabeth Olsen, who I've got a massive crush on, is also terrific as the Marie, even though her character is criminally underdeveloped. Sharlto Copley plays the villain of the film, and he is just awful. Now I think Copley is great actor. However, he is so mis-cast as the villain here. This is another aspect that just clashes with the gritty tone. Many of the villains are just cartoons. It isn't just Copley, but his character's henchmen, who all look like they belong in a fucking kung fu film. Samuel L. Jackson is also unbelievably hammy in his role. While he delivers the kind of performance fans would want to see from him, it doesn't work in this film.
It blows my mind that the original Oldboy was made for a budget of $3 million, while this remake cost $30 million. This movie looks cheap. While it's shot well by cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, a lot of the sets and locations just feel cramped. Lee's also taken many visuals from the original, but has no idea what to do with them in his remake. Nothing looks interesting here, even when it tries to be stylish. The film is also shockingly edited, with cuts that just leave the audience confused. That being said, those who are looking for violence will get it with Oldboy. All the violent special effects look convincing, and the fight scenes are handled well. A highlight is a one-shot brawl where Joe must fight a whole gang of crooks. While it's a sequence that is literally taken from the original, which to be honest did it a lot better, it's an enjoyable action sequence.
It's really impossible for me to recommend this version of Oldboy. If you're someone who doesn't mind subtitles, then I'd tell you to go watch the original classic. Even if you hate subtitles or just don't like asian cinema, I still wouldn't recommend this to you. Lee has stated the original film was supposed to be over 2 hours and that the studio cut his film down to around 90 minutes. While that version may be superior, I can only review the film I saw. The Oldboy remake is just a shoddy thriller that doesn't know what its doing most of the time.