The one thing that makes Korean films (Chaser, Memories of Murder, I Saw the Devil) stand out is that they are raw, unashamed, realistic, and not afraid to make the audience squirm. For a Hollywood film to achieve that kind of status, it really has to pull many strings which involve giving up on its commercial viability. Unfortunately, Spike Lee’s Oldboy, a remake of one of the most widely watched Korean film of the same name, is just not brave enough to have the same effect as its counterpart. What we have as a result is a desperate attempt to cash on in the cult status of the Korean original.
Oldboy sees a drunken philandering Joe Doucett played by Josh Brolin being kidnapped and mysteriously held in a room for 20 years without any apparent reason. On his escape/release, he sets out to find the culprit responsible for ruining his life.
The film in this avatar is quite likely to draw in an audience that has seen the original or is at least aware of it and since I am one of them, it is hard to not compare both the films especially when one can be termed as great and the other as avoidable.
So where does the remake fall short? A number of factors play a part in this, but at the very basic level, it lacks the rawness and shock value that is evident in the original. Although certain liberties have been taken in the climatic revelation, someone who has watched the original is bound to miss out on the jaw-dropping surprise at the end. Obviously, being a remake, this is to be expected, and is something the makers had to gamble with. How well the ending works on a first time watcher is debatable because unlike the original the journey that Brolin’s Doucett takes is just not exciting enough.
One of the most talked about scenes in the original Oldboy is the “hammer scene”, which is replicated here in the most horrendous of fashion. Once again it seems like a distracted attempt to link the film to the original and just doesn’t fit in well with everything else that is happening. The same can also be said for the now famous live octopus eating scene in the original that is simply given a nod in this remake when Doucett looks at an octopus for a second in a restaurant. If you are not going to go all the way and really make the audience uncomfortable by showing the actor eat a live octopus, don’t bother with a lame homage that only those that have seen the film will understand.
What’s even more annoying is that even though the characters have been perfectly etched out in the original, they falter in this remake. While Josh Brolin comes across perfectly as a man on a mission, Samuel L. Jackson playing Chaney, the person running the “prison” where Doucett is kept, is a clichéd version of his onscreen persona; that of a foul mouthed individual who cannot speak a sentence without using words like M*&^%R-F$@!^*G and the likes.
This lack of commitment to the characters can is also true for Elizabeth Olsen’s Marie Sebastian who is supposed to have been conditioned over the years to have a broken soul that would make her fall for a certain type of individual, but that angst and desperation is missing in the kind of damaged character she is supposed to portray.
Lastly, Sharlto Copley is just wasted in the film. His character is almost as essential to the film as that of Brolin’s, but what we get is weirdness that too not the good type. He is flamboyantly dramatized, which is fine, but unfortunately he comes across more as joker and less as a serious villain who has held, close to his heart, a lifelong vendetta against someone.
Oldboy just doesn’t have the guts to go all the way. IMDB states under the film’s trivia section that the original “director’s cut” was chopped up taking away with it a number of character building scenes and maybe that is what’s missing, but it’s hard to tell.
As the film sands at present, it is avoidable because it truly takes away from the brilliance of the Korean original.