Spike Lee’s Oldboy is a tense, shocking, psychological thriller that will keep you riveted from start to finish. There’s just one problem: It’s a remake of an even tenser, more shocking psychological thriller that has already had people talking for the better part of a decade.
Remaking a foreign film is a dubious task. And surely, it’s impossible for those of us who have seen Chan-wook Park’s original Oldboy to really have a pure view of Lee’s remake. Because shock plays such a huge role in the experience of Oldboy, to more or less know what’s coming fundamentally shifts the way in which we watch the movie. We can only have that visceral, nauseating, exhilarating first experience of Oldboy once. After that we are reduced to exposing unsuspecting peers to the film and living vicariously through their reactions. Going into the remake with our minds pre-blown gives us the luxury of picking apart the little pieces of the film, because we’re not as invested in the overarching story.
But what of those who haven’t seen the original Oldboy, those mall wanderers and date-nighters, squishing down in their parka-draped seats, slurping their Sprites and sucking their buttery fingertips with no clue about what they’re getting themselves into? What would their experience of this movie be?
I was fortunate enough to have such a person sitting behind me. And luckily enough, he had no qualms about audibly reacting to the film as it progressed. Throughout the entire climactic scene, in which our protagonist finally confronts the man responsible for his imprisonment, he sort of giggled nervously, ceasing only to mutter, “Oh no. Oh no. Oh no.” As the lights came up he paused in the aisle, looking around at the rest of us as if to say, “Did you see that?” He seemed like he needed someone to talk to, and I’m kind of ashamed that I didn’t just acknowledge him by saying something like, “Crazy, huh?” as I walked by.
If this is the response Spike Lee’s Oldboy wrings from the uninitiated, then surely he’s done something right.
Here’s the film’s setup: After a night of binge drinking, ad executive Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) finds himself locked in a small room. With no explanation as to who has imprisoned him or why, he remains in captivity for the next twenty years. Through television news reports, he learns that his ex-wife has been murdered and he has been framed as the killer. When Joe is mysteriously released, he teams up with an old bartender buddy (Michael Imperioli) and a well-meaning social worker (Elizabeth Olsen) to hunt down his captors, clear his name, and hopefully reunite with his daughter, who was only three years old at the time of his disappearance.
Spike Lee respects the original film. He stays true to the core of the movie while padding the edges, fleshing out the characters, and making some tweaks for mainstream American audiences.
To begin with, Lee gives us much more background on his Joe Doucett character than Chan-wook Park gave us on his main character, Dae-su Oh. In the original, we join our protagonist at the end of his all-night bender. His kidnapping occurs within the first few minutes of the film. Lee rewinds the tape to earlier in the day. We see Joe spike his soda at work, miss his daughter’s birthday to attend an important client dinner, and then blow said dinner by drunkenly hitting on his client’s wife. This sends Joe on his fateful binge. American audiences tend to be more comfortable with cause-and-effect plotting. We like to know the whys behind the whats. So while Joe’s captivity is definitely not a just punishment, this extended glimpse into his personal life assures us that he was on a downward spiral, and had likely made some serious enemies along the way.
Once Joe is kidnapped, Lee also spends more time with him in the prison. We get a closer look at the day-to-day suffering Joe endures. The nadir of this suffering is captured in a powerful added scene in which Josh Brolin lies on the bathroom floor, pleading for a mouse to come out of its hole. That’s how desperate he is for contact with another living creature.
In a major deviation from the original, Joe is offered a small bottle of vodka each day along with his evening meal. Whether this is a small act of mercy or an intentional ploy to fuel his addiction is left to our interpretation. But Joe changes over the course of his imprisonment, much more so than his Korean counterpart seems to. When his daughter is featured as a human-interest story on a television news program, something shifts in Joe. He silently vows to become a new man, and we follow him through the painstaking process of shaking his alcoholism in isolation. Instead of his daily vodka, he finds solace in a rigorous fitness regimen and in writing letters to his estranged daughter. In these letters he professes his innocence while confessing his actual neglect of her. He pleads for her forgiveness and vows to reunite with her.
But when Joe is finally released, the tone shifts in Lee’s version. While Joe’s suffering is still his primary motivation, it’s overshadowed by action that’s a little too much fun for the audience. From the first fight scene, in which a group of football jocks are unceremoniously dispatched while their cheerleader girlfriends squeal in horror, you can tell Spike Lee is having a good time. He revels in putting his stamp on the famous single-take hallway fight scene, for which Josh Brolin reportedly spent six weeks training. Lee relocates the scene to a parking garage, tracking the intricately choreographed fight not just horizontally, as in the original, but over multiple levels. So in addition to more than doubling the length, he one-ups the original literally by an additional dimension. And as a technical achievement, it’s pretty damn cool.
But something still seems off. While both versions of Oldboy can be considered extremely violent, Lee’s treatment of violence differs fundamentally from the original. It is gleeful rather than purposeful. And though there’s more blood and guts, it’s somehow much less visceral. This is one of those changes that I suspect was intended to appeal to a more mainstream American audience. The violence is Tarantino-esque “movie violence,” the type of action that appeals to a pretty large swath of paying American moviegoers. It ends up being gorier but less disturbing than the original.
In contrast, the achievement of that original hallway scene is as emotional as it is technical. With the eerie, minimalist soundtrack setting the mood, Park gives us an intentionally ugly, often awkward brawl that reveals something important about his protagonist. We’re pretty sure Dae-su Oh is done for at several points during the fight. He survives, not through immense skill, but through sheer willpower. On his knees, reduced to bashing the toes of his attackers with a hammer—this is the point where we realize just how desperately driven Dae-su is. That’s what makes the scene so powerful. Spike Lee missed that by focusing on technical mastery over gut-level engagement. His scene can be appreciated because of how it looks. But Park’s scene is iconic because of how it feels.
Spike Lee also gives us a more standard Hollywood villain, complete with overly dramatic entrances and cumbersome props (e.g., sacks of diamonds). While Park’s villain feels almost as desperate and vulnerable as the protagonist, Lee makes sure we know who to root for throughout.
This lack of moral complexity, along with the cartoonish violence, undermines the power of the Oldboy narrative and its underlying theme—namely, that any of us could be an Old Boy, that we are all capable of carelessness, callousness, and cruelty. We don’t know how our words or actions have affected the people around us, and we each likely deserve punishment for some sin we may not even realize we’ve committed.
Despite the shortcomings I’ve mentioned, Spike Lee seems to understand this fundamental premise (one has to wonder how many of these plot alterations were at the behest of his heavy-handed producers), and he spends a lot of time reflecting on it through the character of Joe. His flaws are apparent. He meditates on his sins and the people he has hurt over the years. He repents of his wrongdoing. He changes. But ultimately, he recognizes that what’s been done can never be undone. Some wrongs can never be made right.
The absence of satisfaction, both for the audience and the characters, is really at the heart of Oldboy. Lee does a great job of pulling the rug out from under us over and over. Just as Joe is about to escape, he is set free. Just as he is about to track down the villain, the villain appears of his own free will. And so on. As for the characters, there is repentance but no atonement, punishment but no absolution. The sins these men have committed are irrevocable and irredeemable, and there can be no closure in the vengeance they seek. Lee’s new twist to the twist at the end of the film actually hammers on this theme more effectively than Chan-wook Park’s ending does, and makes for a more satisfying conclusion.
It’s a conclusion that left my noisy theater-mate standing dumbly in the aisle, mind clearly blown, just as mine had been upon my first viewing of Oldboy. And now I’m thinking that this may be the kind of person Spike Lee’s Oldboy was intended to reach. Maybe Lee was smart enough to realize that no matter how true he stayed to the original, we fans would never be satisfied. Why should he make Oldboy for us? We’ve already seen it. He could never recreate the thrill of our first viewing. So instead he created a new thrill, for a new, American audience.