brolin oldboy

Film: Oldboy
Directed by: Spike Lee
Starring: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, Sharlto Copley

Chan-wook Park’s original Korean version of Oldboy is one of the most revered foreign films of the past decade or so. Released in 2003, it still comes up in conversations with all sorts of moviegoers, even amongst those who don’t typically delve into the world of subtitled cinema. Many fans of the original may cry “unnecessary” or “pointless” in regards to this American remake. And I would say those words are completely valid. But Spike Lee should also be commended for not simply painting by the numbers and cashing in on a successful blueprint.

Writer Mark Protosevich (The Cell, I Am Legend) westernizes the story in a number of ways, the most literal of which is relocating our main character, a narcissistic advertising executive named Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin), to a major U.S. city. I’ll assume it’s New York since this is a Spike Lee joint, but I’m not sure if it’s ever specified.

Doucett skips out on his daughter’s 3rd birthday in favor of a big business dinner, but ends up blowing the deal because he can’t resist hitting on a potential client’s wife. So he grabs a bottle of vodka, stumbles into Chinatown, and wakes up in a drunken stupor in what he thinks is just some cheap hotel room. Turns out he’s locked in this cheap hotel room and he’ll spend the next 20 years of his life eating meals served to him through a hatch on the bottom of the door.

This is also where more of that westernization I mentioned comes into play. In the original Oldboy, much of the prisoner’s time was spent fighting off the imaginary ants crawling all over (and under) his skin. Well, I guess that’s kind of confusing or something. And we’re now in America, so what’s an easily-relatable vice the filmmakers can turn to? Alcohol. Doucett’s alcoholism is established from the minute we meet him as he wakes up and shows off the sort of swollen protruding hardbelly we typically associate with the disease. After being captured, he’s served a bottle of vodka every day with breakfast to wash down those dumplings he’s forced to eat.

Doucett finally puts down the bottle and decides to start training along with the fitness videos and kung-fu movies in the event that he gets a chance to exact revenge on his captor, and Brolin makes an impressive physical transformation. The television also plays a news program revealing that Doucett’s wife has been raped and murdered during his time in captivity. Doucett is the prime suspect and their daughter is now under the care of an adoptive family.

Lee does a fine job of replicating the atmospheric dread of the original, but Korean cinema also has a knack for breaking up this tension with bouts of dark comedy. That helped make the original Oldboy so memorable. But this is America, and in America, we want our serious things to be serious and never break a straight face.

So 20 years later, when Doucett is released, there is no strange suicidal man waiting for him on the top of a roof. And I can’t imagine why, but Doucett doesn’t feel the need to indulge in some of the freshest (living) squid New York (again, just an assumption) has to offer. Fortunately though, that long-take hammer battle still remains, even if Brolin never gets the chance to pull anyone’s teeth out with said hammer.

Lee’s Oldboy feels like a much more straightforward tale of revenge and redemption. Doucett wants to find his captor and make amends with his daughter, and the film doesn’t concern itself with the subplots of hallucination, torture and hypnosis present in the original. Doucett isn’t the most likable character, but we know he’s no rapist or murderer and we stick with him because we’re just as curious as he is about what he did to deserve this punishment. The remake is 15 minutes shorter than the original, and it certainly feels that way. Several plot points are glossed over, while others are left entirely unexplained.

The entire cast is up to the task, but Elizabeth Olsen’s warm and caring presence as a young social worker who quickly befriends Doucett, really stands out amongst the film’s otherwise gloomy surroundings. Doucett’s quest for revenge is aided by Olsen and an old friend (Michael Imperioli, appearing in his sixth Spike Lee movie), who teach him the wonders of the internet and the iPhone.

If the film has any campy moments at all, they’re exclusively reserved for Sharlto Copley, who is introduced to us (and Doucett) as a creepy man on the other end of a series of mysterious phone calls. I found him immensely entertaining, but Copley’s character is sure to be a polarizing one. And after Elysium, polarizing over-the-top villains seem to have become a specialty of Copley’s.

Spike Lee might not be the person Oldboy fans wanted to see remake their beloved revenge tale. The film doesn’t even feel much like a Spike Lee movie. It doesn’t make any bold statements or aim to stir up any fresh conversations. It almost could’ve been made by anyone and I think it’s fair to wonder if fans would be more open to the idea if a sexier name like Fincher or Aronofsky were attached instead. But Lee’s Oldboy succeeds in the same way Fincher’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo succeeded, by capturing the essence of the original while still offering enough originality and touches of individual flavor. And hell, this movie was almost made by Steven Spielberg and Will Smith. So maybe we should just count our blessings.

Score: B

Review written by: Kevin Blumeyer

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