The remake of Park Chan Wook’s cult classic Oldboy, directed by Spike Lee, did not get a warm reception from critics and was a box office disaster. Even Spike Lee and the film’s main star, Josh Brolin, criticized the version released to theaters. Spike Lee went as far to change the film from a more personal and familiar “Spike Lee Joint” to a more business like “Spike Lee Film.” Although differences vary, the main plot of Oldboy is that a drunken businessman who has been imprisoned in a motel room for many years (15 in original and 20 in 2013 version) and has been framed as the murderer/rapist of his wife. He is let go for no apparent reason and is given instructions by his captor to try to find out who he is. Although the question is, “Is Spike Lee’s reimagining come even close to matching the 2003 classic?,” “Does the remake bring anything new to the legacy of Oldboy?,” and “Is Spike Lee’s version as terrible as it was made out to be?” In answer to those questions: Absolutely not, not particularly, and no. I went through the liberty of watching both Spike Lee’s version and Park Chan Wook’s version again, so as to point out what is both good and bad about each version and to decide which version is worth your time this weekend.
Warning: There are a few spoilers included for clarity purposes.
I found the film to be neither good nor bad.
This new Oldboy has a very Hollywood ending. Much happier than the original ending, but lacking the power of it.
What is Good About the Film?
Different Tone Than That of Original Version:
One of the few saving graces of this movie does come from the difference in tone from the original Oldboy. The original Oldboy was a dark and brooding movie that skipped from being a slick action thriller to a mystery to a disturbing drama. The tone of the first movie is intoxicating and really drags you into the movie cinematically. To the credit of the Lee’s version, it paints a different picture of Oldboy. This version of Oldboy has surprising realism. The setting, filming, changes in plot almost give off the impression that this film is a slightly far fetched but plausible version of the 2003 version if it actually could happen in real life. This realistic approach is both one of the film’s saving graces and a negative aspect of the film. It is successful because it is one of the few things that differentiates the new movie from the original version of the movie. On the other hand, this approach is unsuccessful because it eliminates much of the excitement and suspense of the original. The mystery of the 2003 film was part of what made the movie so interesting, but it was the disturbing and suspenseful execution which made it so great. Put this suspense through a more plain and realistic lens and you have Spike Lee’s execution. It is slightly off-putting and makes the film slightly boring. Generally speaking, while the tone of the movie does not bring it to the same level of the 2003 film at all, it at least make room for some differentiation.
Different Execution Than That of Original Version (Positive):
One thing that I enjoyed about Spike Lee’s version was some of the difference in how the story was executed. The story of the 2013 version is essentially a rehash of the original but it has small touches that make a difference. One such change is that the film spends time on Joe’s alcoholism and recklessness in the beginning of the film. Another such change is that the film spends much more time on Joe’s 20 year imprisonment than the 2003 version focuses on Oh-Dae Su’s 15 year imprisonment. I don’t think this addition is necessarily good or bad, but I just think it gave the film something different to boot. One such change in execution is that throughout the whole film Joe’s main goal is to find his daughter and also his captor. Whereas in the 2003 film, the main character is simply searching for his captor and his identity. There are a few other changes most being in the scenes of Joe’s captivity and those just so happen to be the film’s strongest scenes. Parts of the finale of the film are very good too.
The Love Interest:
The only aspect of the whole film that I actually liked more than the original film was the “love interest.” After seeing either version film, you will see the the term “love interest” is not exactly accurate. Elizabeth Olsen plays a nurse named Marie who follows Joe throughout his journey for answers toward why he was imprisoned. Elizabeth Olsen is generally very likable as an actress, and she portrays her character well. Kang Hye-jung, who plays the “love interest” in the original film came across as very irritating to me. I do not think she did a particularly bad job, but in an almost perfect film, she stood out as one of my few complaints. Whereas Elizabeth Olsen was one of the strongest assets of the 2013 film.
Josh Brolin’s Performance:
Josh Brolin is actually not bad in this film. Brolin is a decent actor who once in a while delivers a great performance like in No Country For Old Men. Josh Brolin’s character never reaches the same emotional intensity that Choi Min-sik reached as Oh-Dae Su, but he delivers a different performance. Although Min-Sik also played a immature drunken-businessman, Josh Brolin plays a nasty American very well in the beginning. While his character is imprisoned , Brolin portrays how most normal people would feel if they were kidnapped and imprisoned against their own will, and he does it quite well. His stone-faced ruthless post-imprisonment Joe is quite well played as well. It is not until the finale of the film when Brolin’s acting falters and he moves into over-exaggerating. But generally speaking, Josh Brolin did a good job in his role.
Dropping Certain Elements of The Original Film:
Although much of what was in the original film is not included in Lee’s version, some of the dropping of material was a good move. Much of the plot of 2003’s Oldboy has to do with the culture in Asia and with differently structured story, so by dropping certain elements (of which I will not mention), Lee avoided making a cinematic mess.
As I have established, this film is not a cinematic or emotional masterpiece like the original Oldboy, but it is relatively entertaining. It moves at a brisk pace, the direction is decent, the acting is pretty good, and the action is alright. Although this sounds very lukewarm, which it slightly is, I did kind of enjoy this film. I definitely think this film is better suited for American audiences who want to watch a dark thriller one weekend and have no intention of seeing the original. So generally speaking, this movie is fairly entertaining and a good if not forgettable watch.
Change of Setting from South Korea to The United States:
The only thing about this movie that I am highly praising is its transfer from the setting of streets South Korea to the boulevards of New York. The screenwriter and director adapt the events and characters well into the new setting very well maki unnecessarily the story seem plausible in America. Remakes of foreign films often suffer with this.
Some of The Bad Qualities of The Film Will Make The Original Film Become Even More Powerful in A Second Watching:
Spike Lee is a good director. He has delivered many very powerful movies about race and some good action films as well. Sadly, this film is not really either of those. Although I do not think this movie was absolute garbage, this is not a great film. Unintentionally, it actually helps show how much of a masterpiece Park Chan Wook’s film was. I certainly gained more of an appreciation for it after seeing the film. This was of course not the intention of Lee and what I am saying is a very backhanded compliment of the movie but it is true.
What is Bad About The Film?
This is An Unnecessary Remake:
Where to begin with what is wrong with the film. Although this movie had a few decent aspects, it was completely and utterly unnecessary. The movie neither matches the depth, brutality, disturbing nature, or perfect production of Park Chan Wook’s film. Although it maybe harsh to say this, Spike Lee’s film truly just does not add anything to the legacy of Oldboy. It is not different enough to add anything to the original film. It is not a disaster but in the eyes of the original film it is just incredibly inferior. It also seemed as though screenwriter, Mark Protosevich and director, Spike Lee did not also fully understand the source material they were working with. They almost made a less powerful English language rehash of the original film.
This is Just A Movie Not A Cinematic Experience:
Park Chan Wook’s Oldboy is an example of a film that while you are watching it, it pulls you in and does not let go. It is not just a movie you see, enjoy, and forget about. It is a very memorable and emotionally exhausting movie. Spike Lee’s Oldboy is not. It is entertaining at best but it fairly forgettable and lacks the punch of the original film.
Random Changes and Lack of Changes in Plot:
Oldboy suffers from a common problem remakes tend to feature. This problem is that the filmmakers seemingly change random aspects of the plot simply for the sake of trying to make it different or keeping some plot points exactly the same. In Spike Lee’s film, there are many scenes that are changed only slightly for no apparent reason and that is infuriating. It makes me feel as though Mark Protosevich was just sitting in a room with a bunch of executives saying, “Hey just for giggles, should we just change this part?” while writing the script. Adversely there are a few plot aspects that are kept exactly the same. Such as in the original version of Oldboy, Oh Dae Su is given the same dumplings almost every night for 15 years. In the new Oldboy, it is exactly the same thing, dumplings and all, for Joe. I simply do not understand why it was not changed.
Different Execution Than That of Original Version (Negative):
While some of the different execution of the film works well, some of it fails miserably. One of the best scenes in the original Oldboy comes when Oh Dae-Su, equipped with only a hammer, fights through a hallway full of men trying to kill him. This scene is filmed very well and the power of it is showing how viscous and dangerous Oh Dae-Su is. Whereas in Spike Lee’s version, Joe, using only a hammer, fights through many different men on maybe three different levels of a warehouse. This destroys the meaning the original had. This does not prove that Joe is a viscous and ruthless, it just proves he is pretty handy with a hammer.
It Loses Traction Halfway Through The Movie:
This movie loses traction at about the 1 hour mark. The beginning of the movie is surprisingly very good. After about 45 minutes I was thinking to myself, “Hey this is not amazing but I am impressed, let’s see where this film is going to go from here!” The answer was really nowhere. The beginning does a good job of showing a different interpretation of the beginning of the original film by extending and adding more to it. I would later look back and even realize that was unnesacary . The first 45 minutes of the 2013 Oldboy encompass maybe 20 minutes of the original. Leaving that aside, after the 1 hour mark, the movie just stumbles through the rest almost rushing towards the end. That was a turn-off.
The absolute worst aspect of the film comes in the form of the villain. As an actor I really like Sharlto Copley. He was excellent in District 9 and The A Team. In fairness, it is not really Copley’s fault, it is the material given to him. The character is incredibly hokey with a beyond awful British accent and questionable motives. Whereas Yoo Ji-tae was both incredibly menacing and at the same time very human as Lee Woo-jin, Sharlto Copley is just awkward. At some points, he is supposed to be shown as almost superhuman than he suddenly appears to be very weak. As an example, in the original film, there are a few parts when Yoo Ji-tae’s bottom is exposed and there is some nudity but it adds to the character. In Lee’s version, Copley is simply just walking around naked for no reason and it is uncomfortable. Another thing to note is that in the original film, Lee Woo-jin had very interesting motives for imprisoning Oh Dae-Su and it gives more depth to his character. But in the Spike Lee version, Sharlto Copley’s Adrian Pryce has hair-brained motives. In Lee’s attempt to stay true to the original and yet make something new, he confuses more with the twist in the end of the film. Pryce’s motives do not really make complete sense and that is one very big flaw in the film.
The Special Effects:
I am usually not one to judge a film for visual effects because I find that to be a very specific criticism, but some of the special effects are so dreadful in this film that I cannot help note it. The CGI blood splatters are down right amateurish. This would be forgivable if there was only one CGI blood splatter, but instead there are around 5 to 10 blood splatters. It is very distracting.
The Casting of Samuel L. Jackson:
Samuel L. Jackson is an excellent actor. One of the best character actors in film history in fact. It is not that Samuel L. Jackson is bad in this movie it is just that it is so unnecessary. The role is so brief and random that it just did not make sense to cast a blonde mohawked and lip-piercing wearing Sam Jackson in the film. I highly dislike when a film uses a big actor for no reason except that they are a big actor. That is one of the only problems I had with 12 Years A Slave. Paul Giamatti, Michael Kenneth Williams, and Quvenzhané Wallis had such brief roles in the movie that it was just distracting and unnesacary that they were even it in. That is what happens with Samuel L. Jackson in this movie, he just should not have been in it.
Uneven Direction by Spike Lee:
My final blow towards Spike Lee’s Oldboy is Spike Lee himself. His direction is all of the place. In the beginning of the movie, he moves the camera around in creative camera shots and pans then he moves to more traditional medium close-ups and mid-shots then the fly on the wall technique. It was like he forgot to take his directing medication and was doing whatever he wanted. It was an eye-brow raising aspect of the film
Comparison to Original: Essentially what I am doing in this article is making a comparison between the 2013 version and the 2003 version and that is part of the 2013 film’s problem. I would like to try and view Lee’s Oldboy as a standalone film but because of the big shoes of the 2003 version that it was expected to fill, it cannot be helped but compare it to the original.
Should You Watch It?
If you have not seen the original Oldboy and do not intend to, this movie is for you. It is decent Saturday night movie that is entertaining but forgettable. For fans of the original film who want to make comparisons between the two films, watch away as well. But for fans of the original looking for an equally excellent movie, avoid this movie.
What is Good About It?
The Direction and The Cinematography:
Park Chan Wook is a cinematic genius. The direction for this movie is very unique. Although, there are many seemingly random shots from interesting angles and scenes that appear irrelevant, every shot in this movie has some meaning. The direction of the movie is noticeably great and in my own opinion this film should be shown in film school to show students what great direction looks like. The cinematography is also a marvel. Some of the best cinematography of early 2000’s film. It capture the darkness and grit and every other emotion that the film harbors.
Oldboy’s script is very powerful. It does not appear to be anything special at first, but it backs a blow by the end. The dialogue is great, the voiceover is great, and the story is beyond great but what really makes the writing special for this movie is how all of those aspects work together. The foreshadowing through voiceover, the representation of plot through dialogue and images, etc, work together to craft a comprehensive and fascinating film.
The Tone and Atmosphere:
Oldboy is the most disturbing film I have ever seen. I mean this in the best of ways. When this film wants to be a thriller, it is a thriller. When it wants to be an action movie, it is an action movie. When it wants to be funny, it is funny. But when it comes to being disturbing and emotional, that is when it really succeeds. This movie is at times very hard to watch, but that only proves how successful it is. It gets across what it intended. I guarantee for those who have not seen it, Park Chan Wook’s Oldboy is one of the most thought-provoking and interesting movies you may ever see.
The Acting and Character Development:
Although I have expressed my opinion on Kang Hye-jung’s performance in this movie, everyone else is phenomenal. Although Choi Min-sik and Yoo Ji-tae are Oscar-worthy, the whole cast is great. Especially the younger equivalents of Min-sik and Ji-tae’s characters. Choi Min-sik performance is chameleonic and very deep as the emotionally disturbed and conflicted Oh- Dae Su. Min-sik possesses so much power and he goes into the very psyche of his character. Chan Park Wook famously cast a 20-something Yoo Ji-tae as Lee Woo-jin, a character in his early 40’s. He did this purely because of Ji-tae talent and I can absolutely see why. The menacing and terrifying billionaire, Lee Woo-jin, with a dark past is played with surprising vulnerability by Ji-tae. One of the best film casting ever decided. Besides the acting being great, this film achieves character development perfectly. Although many of the characters in Oldboy are of the unsavory type, you understand or get a glimpse into their souls and see their joys, pains, and objectives. As pretentious as that sounds, it is accurate. You know the characters very well. This is also well before the film is over.
I just mentioned that Yoo Ji-tae is great in this movie and that his character is great, but the villain of the film is amazing. The best villains in a movie are either the most goofy villains or the most evil villains. In this movie, that is proven wrong. Although, Lee Woo-jin is despicable, but he has a human side to him (that is a spoiler I will not go into). He is a very unique “villain” and unlike Copley’s Adrian Pryce, he gets a great introduction and is used by the film very well.
The editing in the movie, like much else in the movie is great. The editing is so smooth, cool, practical, and flawless. I will not elaborate anymore because after viewing the film, it will become very obvious.
Part of what makes Oldboy a phenomenal film is that almost every aspect of it is successful but none of them as much as the music. The music is incredibly diverse going from slick techno music to beautiful classical to string instrument thumbing out creepy melodies. The score compliments the film perfectly.
The Shock Value:
Shocking is one of the words I would use to explain Oldboy. The twist itself is good but it is really the execution that makes it amazing. The dread and disgust it produces are really incredible. Everything comes to a surprising crash in the end of the movie and it excellently done and may make your mouth drop open. Besides the finale, this movie puts a new definition on ultra-violent. It’s brutal violence is very shocking and adds a new layer to the film. It is also very sexually explicit but like the violence, it is all there for a reason.
Cinematic Value (Themes, Motifs, and Foreshadowing)
Oldboy is an excellent movie for film buffs and for analysis generally because of how rich it is. Although the film contains many not relatable and ugly elements, much of the story has relatable elements and themes. This will become apparent after viewing the film. This film also utilizes the use of motifs and foreshadowing throughout the film. It does it visually by the camera lingering on something for a bit too long or having something that appears seemingly random appear in a scene. It also does it through voiceover and dialogue. Either of the ways it utilizes it, it utilizes it well and when you realize the foreshadowings in the end, it will make the hairs on the back of your neck prickle.
A Cinematic Experience:
This movie is exciting. It truly is. It snares you and does not let you go until the end of the film. I love a movie that can do that for an audience.
What is Bad About It?
The Love Interest:
As I have gone over, I found the female “love interest” to be irritating.
Should You See It?
If you looking for Saturday night entertainment watch Spike Lee’s vision, but if you are looking for a dark and disturbing masterpiece, look no further. This film is far superior to Lee’s version and I highly recommend it to anyone who can handle it’s content.