Sean K. Cureton

An Unnecessary Remake that Surpasses the Original

In Movie Reviews: 2013 on December 9, 2013 at 3:38 pm

Theatrical Poster

Oldboy
Directed by Spike Lee
3 ½ out of 4 stars

Oldboy, the new Spike Lee Joint, is film that has been grossly disparaged and derided before it was even seen by a mass audience. Inspired by the 2003 cult-classic South Korean film of the same name directed by Chan-wook Park, and based on the original Japanese Manga written by Garon Tsuchiya, Lee’s Oldboy is the most recent re-make of a still contemporaneous cinema classic that Hollywood has produced of late. The original 2003 film is a new-classic revenge thriller, as startling in its liberal use of violence as it is inspiring in its singularly expert level craft in cinematography and editing. Park’s Oldboy is one of the best films of the past ten years, which is why there has been such an uproar over Lee’s new adaptation of the same story, made only ten years after the original was released. However, Lee’s Oldboy is not Park’s; Lee’s remake serves to clarify and expound certain points and over-arching themes of the story for an American audience that might have been unclear in the South Korean version, and in the process makes a film that might just be capable of surpassing the original.

Where the original film engaged in a certain surreal-mysticism that lent the film much of its originality and humor, Lee’s remake is much more hard-boiled, offering scenes that are far more gritty and immediately violent than anything offered up in the original. While many of the film’s shots and sequences are lifted directly from Park’s adaptation, Lee’s reinterpretations of these scenes feel more horrifying and intense than viewers might expect. Where Park’s film was more human, concerned with the film’s protagonist from a perspective of empathetic identification, Lee’s film creates a certain distance between the viewer and the film’s hero, allowing for the scenes of torture and violence to occur more forcefully and without restraint. However, the scenes of violence in Lee’s Oldboy never feel gratuitous or exploitative, as they might under the hands of a less capable director. Where the film might have been grossly sadistic had it been directed by, say, Robert Rodriguez or Quentin Tarantino, Lee is able to strike a balance between the narrative and the on-screen violence, never filming a scene that falls into unwarranted excess.

Lee’s Oldboy is also headed by one of the most well conceived casts imaginable for this particular film, starring Josh Brolin as the hero, and Elizabeth Olsen as sidekick. While Min-sik Choi’s stirring portrayal of Dae-su Oh in Park’s film will never be overshadowed by any other performer’s interpretation of the same character, Josh Brolin brings a certain gruff manor and apathetic amorality to the role. Instead of playing his Joe Doucett as a mere drunken buffoon, Brolin’s Wall Street executive is much more aware of his short comings, which makes his initial imprisonment and penultimate punishment all the more justified and deserved. Likewise, Elizabeth Olsen is sublime in her role as Marie Sebastian, distancing herself from Hye-jeong Kang’s performance in the original film, with a character that is effectively unique to Lee’s film, a little wiser and more cunning than Park’s Mi-do. Other notables include Samuel L. Jackson and Michael Imperioli, playing the hotel manager and the old friend respectively, and whose performances turn out to be even better than the ones offered up the first time around.

As Spike Lee’s Oldboy has been released for the first time over the past few weeks to a nationwide audience of viewers, the question that has plagued Spike Lee ever since he announced his plans for remaking Chan-Wook Park’s classic has reemerged with even greater force: why remake the film at all? For many fans of the original cult classic, that question will create a bias within them, predetermining a negative reaction to Lee’s film before they even see it, if they even allow Lee’s film that much attention. The advance critical reaction to the film has proven this bias to be abundantly present, with critics tearing Lee’s work apart, seemingly for no purpose other than to complain that it was made at all. Commercially, the film is already a failure, and probably won’t rake in much more money than it already has. Such a fact is unfortunate, as Spike Lee’s Oldboy is one of the most invigorating and exciting films to come out this year, even if it was an unnecessary exercise in re-adaptation.   

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