Hollywood is a strange beast that appears to be driven purely by the need to generate profit. This is no more evident than with the policy of remaking non English language movies for audiences that are deemed unable to read subtitles and watch a film at the same time. There have been some success stories, notably the Martin Scorsese film The Departed, and some massive failures. The failures usually happen due to the remake losing the essence of what made the original so engaging. A remake of Oldboy had been in development for over a decade prior to its eventual release in 2013. Several big name directors and stars were attached at various points in the process. Eventually Spike Lee was appointed as director and his version of the story was able to get it to the screen.
Initially set in 1993, the story begins as we follow a boorish drunk (Josh Brolin) with no regard for anyone or anything. He has just blown a big deal for his company and is drowning his sorrows. In the middle of the street, on a rain-soaked night he disappears. He awakes in a small hotel style suite consisting of a living room and a bathroom. The room is in fact a prison of sorts as he cannot leave. There are no windows and his only link with the outside world is the television set in the corner. Despite his pleas to his unseen captors, he is held for twenty years in isolation. While attempting to escape he is gassed and wakes to find himself in a wooden box in the middle of a field. He pledges to find out who ordered his incarceration and the reason behind it.
The main problem with the film is the automatic comparison to the highly cherished South Korean original. Despite the film makers protest that the English language version was based more on the Manga comic rather than the film it is not particularly easy to view this movie as a separate entity. It doesn’t help that there are some scenes that appear to mirror the original shot for shot. Sadly the tension is missing owing to this. Spike Lee must have got a sense of this as he has replaced the drama in some scenes with gore and straight up bloody violence in the hope that it will be adequate.
Josh Brolin is actually quite good as the imprisoned man. His performance is measured and sometimes frightening. He makes the transition from a drunk to the effective killer in both his acting and his physical transformation. Unfortunately this is not sufficient to save the film. He is the only character that is fully developed. The rest of the cast is used as plot devices and has little development. Sharlito Copley isn’t great as the main antagonist. He feels so over the top that he should have had a long mustache solely for twirling as he delivers his monologues. Don’t get me wrong. He is a very good actor, but just not in this.
Where the film does work is in the fight and action scenes. They are well choreographed, fast and exciting. There is a distinct lack of quick cuts and mad camera angles. Instead we get long takes where the camera follows the flow of the action and shows off Josh Brolin’s physicality. The film could have done with a little more of this.
Overall, a bit of a missed opportunity. Spike Lee failed to put his own stamp on a very loved product. All that was achieved was to highlight just how good the original was compared to this. Avoid.