Normally I do my best to not consider the source material when reviewing a film adaptation (or any adaptation, for that matter). Often it’s because I haven’t seen/read/experienced it (usually intentionally), but we should be all about determining whether the film can stand on its own merits. With a project like Spike Lee’s Oldboy, it’s tough for a few reasons. Park Chan-Wook’s Korean-language original casts a shadow over Lee’s interpretation, which tries to be its own movie while constantly visually referencing the original.Additionally, Oldboy is one of those films like Fight Club, where it has a transformational twist ending that doesn’t outright ruin the experience of rewatching it, but fundamentally changes the events once you know what’s going on. The goat’s been given up before seeing a single frame of Lee’s version. As such, it’s essentially impossible for me to look at Spike Lee’s effort as its own work for its own sake, which is a bit of a shame. I would be interested to see what a neophyte would think about seeing Lee’s version first with no knowledge of what foundation he’s building on.
The story is basically left intact. Josh Brolin steps in as the lead, Joe Doucett (a slant-rhyme of Choi Min-Sik’s Oh Dae-su), a smarmy alcoholic ad executive who wakes up imprisoned in a motel room after a particularly vigorous bender, only to rot there with access to a TV and a steady diet of dumplings over the next 20 years, during which he discovers he has been framed for the rape and murder of his ex-wife. After some time, he decides to give up the alcohol and mold himself into the perfect killing machine by doing a bunch of chin-ups and shadowboxing. Once he is inexplicably released, revenge his is only motivation. With the help of a young woman (Elizabeth Olsen) he stumbles upon shortly after his emancipation, Doucett sets out to find answers and stoke his blood vengeance. Spike’s version of the film based on Mark Protosevich’s script is a more straightforward affair. The disorientation of his imprisonment is similar, though an introspective voice over (and a stunning hallucination sequence) is replaced by a more literal interpretation of events. We are given more information in this American version, which heavily externalizes the events. As a result, we have a better sense of who Oh Dae-Su is than Joe Doucett. Once he returns to the outside world, Joe’s desire for revenge is painted as more one-dimensional. He fits the Terminator role with less of a sense of self. This doesn’t necessarily make for a bad film, but it does make for a worse film.
Lee’s direction also lacks a certain dimension, though in this case it is a result of a lack of consistency. There are times when Lee attempts visual and camera flourishes, such as the grainy style of Doucett’s bender that opens the film (including attaching the camera rig to Brolin’s back as he stumbles around), or Lee’s interpretation of the hallway hammer fight, the most famous moment from the original. These moments work decently well on their own merits, though his version of the single shot fight is made overly complex and the technical merits again strip out the emotional or visceral ones we see in Choi Min-Sik’s performance. This is really the story of the difference between the two films; you know what Lee is striving for, and you know that he is falling short.
The other major issue at play is Sharlto Copley, who plays the film’s antagonist. Copley’s decisions and mannerisms are a misfire on a grand scale; he preens around with his angular facial hair and absurd accent. He’s a Bond villain in the middle of what is supposed to be a serious revenge film with massive stakes. He fails titanically in actually fomenting even the slightest hint of malice or danger. He has no teeth. Elizabeth Olsen holds up her end of the bargain, doing her job well enough (though there isn’t a ton to do), selling the feeling that there is something deeper to her spontaneous attraction to Brolin, but the weakness of Copley’s portrayal undercuts the emotional payoff of the film’s grand revelation. In the hands of Park Chan-Wook, the twist is operatic and memorable, while Lee’s plays off like some twisted version of an Adam West Batman episode. It’s amazing how much this one man derails the entire film and keeps it away from having any chance of approaching the merits of the original.
Lee reveals his hand, though, in the way he constantly references Park’s choices. Whether it’s lingering on an octopus in a fish tank or the aforementioned hallway fight, or similar shots and takes, Lee is constantly calling out the Korean original. This is not Spike Lee trying to make his own movie or his own interpretation of the manga. This is Spike Lee trying to shock people I guess, or perhaps show people that he can out-Tarantino Tarantino after that dust-up regarding Django Unchained last year? The fact that I don’t know what he’s trying to do is itself a problem. It feels like a low-rent mash-up of Park Chan-Wook and Quentin Tarantino. It doesn’t feel like Spike Lee. He didn’t need to redo the hallway fight and attempt to one-up the original. He felt obligated to. Which is not a way to make a good movie.
The bottom line we have is that there is no legitimate reason for this film to exist. I guess there’s a market for people who just don’t want to watch a foreign film with subtitles and still want to experience this intense story of revenge and depravity. My expectation is that those without prior knowledge could potentially enjoy Spike’s interpretation of the events (though Copley could single-handedly tank that possibility), but all you’re doing is robbing yourself of a much better film, especially considering how much better the twists are in the original Korean. There’s no reason to see this other than as a curiosity, but if you do want to give Redbox a dollar for the pleasure, make sure you see Park Chan-Wook’s original (conveniently available in the original Korean on Netflx) masterpiece before you do.