‘Oldboy’ movie review: Josh Brolin stars in Spike Lee remake of Korean classic

Park Chan-wook’s OldBoy – the second film in the director’s “Vengeance” trilogy, and based on the Japanese manga of the same name – became an international smash upon its release back in 2003. A key player in the burgeoning South Korean film scene, it paved the way to increased recognition for subsequent features; the director went on to make his English-language debut with the underrated Stoker earlier this year. 

An Oldboy remake has been talked about for years; at one point, Steven Spielberg was rumored to direct with Will Smith starring. It’s easy to see why: the film features an intriguing high-concept premise that gets deeper and deeper as the layers are peeled away, with a resonating underlying theme and a real whopper of an ending. 

A decade after the original film, the remake has finally hit with a most unusual choice for director: Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X), whose heist thriller Inside Man is the only film amongst his filmography remotely similar to this kind of genre fare.

Still, Lee does a superb job here: appropriately grittier and grimier than Chan-wook’s perfectly-framed, pretty-as-a-picture original, this is an unusually brutal and violent film that really makes a visceral impact. Cinematography by Sean Bobbitt utilizes a handheld camera, grainy film stock, and a desaturated, muddy color palette that feels well-suited to the material. 

Otherwise, this is the same movie as the original. If you haven’t seen that one, for whatever reason, and you’re up for this kind of dark, twisted thriller, then I can safely say you’ll dig the Spike Lee version.

But for the rest of us – what’s the point? The common complaint against remakes is that they’re unnecessary, but there’s almost always some reason for their existence – a new twist, a new vision – especially when coming from a filmmaker of Lee’s caliber. 

Here – not so much. Lee’s Oldboy is almost distressingly similar to the original, with the minor alterations in Mark Protosevich’s script – some upgrades, some downgrades – ultimately changing little. Most concerning are some outright cribs – a shot of the main character peering through a food hatch is identical to one in the original, and the big fight scene – the hallway hammer beatdown – is conceived and shot in the same exact manner, a single-take panorama with the very minor alteration of taking place on two floors. 

That fight scene is a good metaphor for the film as a whole: impressive in execution, but lacking in freshness, in originality. C’mon, Spike: give us something new

Josh Brolin stars here as Joe Doucett, the man who is mysteriously imprisoned in a hotel room for twenty years before being released – and dared to discover who put him there, and why. Brolin – doing his best hard-boiled Nick Nolte – is perfectly cast as the beat-down Doucett: we can see the wear and tear on his face, the pain in his eyes. 

I can’t say the same, unfortunately, about Sharlto Copely, who plays Adrian, the man behind Doucett’s imprisonment. Copely stole the show earlier this year in Elysium, but doesn’t make much of an impact here as a prim, blandly creepy Euro-villain, the kind of character a Jeremy Irons or Alan Rickman might have played.

But the problem may lie in the character’s conception. In the original, the Adrian character was a huge part of the film: his arc, arguably, was just as important as the main character’s. Here, the role has been trimmed back, the backstory altered, and the film suffers for it: the climactic sequence doesn’t have the total impact that it should. 

Samuel L. Jackson, Elizabeth Olson, and Michael Imperioli appear in key supporting roles. 

Apparently, Lee’s original 140-minute cut of the feature was re-edited by the studio against the director’s wishes (the familiar “A Spike Lee Joint” credit has been replaced here with a more generic “A Spike Lee Film”). I’m guessing a lot of character work – especially with Adrian – ended up on the cutting room floor; the resulting film clocks in at 105 minutes.

Spike Lee’s Oldboy may not be fresh, but those who haven’t seen the original are in for a twisted treat. Too bad they’re unlikely to actually watch it: the film was torn apart by critics and dumped into 500-something cinemas for its US release, where it opened to a paltry $1 million. 


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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