I was never a part of the huge cult following that surrounded the original Oldboy, in fact I only got around to watching the film for the first time last year. I thoroughly enjoyed it and could definitely see why so many held it in such high esteem, I had just come to the film a bit too late to join their ranks. I'm starting my review of last years remake by telling you this because I have a feeling that my position in relation to the original probably had a considerable impact on my response to Spike Lee's version.
Spike Lee // 2013 // 104 mins
After a night of heavy drinking, arrogant advertising executive Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) is abducted and wakes to find himself in a motel-like room with no apparent exit. He is held hostage in the confines of this room for 20 years with no explanation and no human contact, just a TV that reveals he has been accused of raping and murdering his ex-wife, leaving his young daughter an orphan. When he is finally set free Joe becomes obsessed with discovering who was responsible for his abduction and the murder of his wife, and sets out on a bloody revenge spree in order to get this information. Along the way he encounters Marie (Elizabeth Olsen), a young volunteer nurse who wants to help him in any way that she can. Together the pair begin to uncover the mystery surrounding Joe's tormentor while a romantic spark develops between them.
While Oldboy is very much a remake of Park Chan-Wook's Korean thriller it introduces a number of new elements that differentiate it enough from the original while never being disrespectful to that films legacy. The original's premise is an extremely strong one that ensures that this film's plot is consistently interesting, while the new approaches to certain aspects of the plot means that there is still a level of mystery and intrigue running through Doucett's story. There seems to have been a controlled effort from Lee and writer Mark Protosevich to make this film feel more grounded in reality, as something that could actually happen. This does lead to some slightly outlandish explanations for how everything was orchestrated, though, and perhaps requires a greater suspension of disbelief than the more surreal approach of the original.
Josh Brolin gives a solid performance in the central role, portraying Doucett's aggressive plight for justice with great conviction. He is helped considerably by the number of extreme physical transformations that he has to go through in order to become the character, while the emotional core of Doucett's story does a lot of the work to make him a sympathetic figure. Olsen does her best with Marie, who is an interesting character that has the misfortune of being thinly written and simply serves the purpose of showing a sensitive side to Doucett while he goes on his violent rampage. Samuel L. Jackson is his usual badass self, but relies on his interesting styling to differentiate this character from any of his others. Following his weak turn as the villain of Elysium, Sharlto Copley is once again the most disappointing as the man behind Doucett's troubles. Masking his familiar accent with an offensive attempt at a 'posh Brit' one he is too excessively ridiculous in a film that otherwise tries to calm down the eccentric tone of the original and fails to convince as a threatening figure.
The film has a strong style that leads to a number of visually striking scenes. Doucett's release from captivity - emerging from a leather case in the centre of a field - looks fantastic and is one of many examples of cinematographer Sean Bobbitt's keen eye and talent. The infamous hallway scene from the original gets an upgrade, now taking place over two levels which adds to the spectacle despite feeling a little too staged. A third section to the sequence was cut from the final film and it's loss is definitely noticeable although I'm not sure how much more it could have added to the scene. There is also the small matter of the twist, which I won't spoil but will say is dealt with in a unique way that is commendable but doesn't work quite as well as I would have hoped.
Spike Lee's 're-imagining' of Oldboy may have been unnecessary but it manages to hold it's own against the Korean cult-classic. The changes that have been made to the story are not always successful but when they work they do so to great effect, giving this film it's own charm and appeal. There is some great talent involved here that never quite reaches it's full potential but definitely makes for an engaging ride while it lasts.