Spike Lee’s remake of Park Chan-wook's Oldboy is getting trashed left and right and flopping with audiences. But sue me, I kind of liked it. And while I love, love, love the original to death and still vastly prefer it to this one, I figured it might be worth noting down some things about Lee's film that I thought worked. It ain’t exactly Losey’s remake of M (though let it be noted that that film too was much hated for many decades before its reputation slowly began to repair) but I think this new Oldboy is worthwhile. I’d certainly be interested to see the rumored longer version some day.
1.) Joe Version 1.0. I liked the fact that Lee’s film spent more time with Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) before he was captured. (Park’s original has a bit of that, as well, but it clearly positions itself as being about what happens after. If you’ll recall, it actually starts in medias res and then flashes back to the kidnapping.) As a result, this Oldboy seems to be more about transformation than it is about revenge. Unfortunately, this probably also backfires to some extent because we get to spend less time with Joe Version 2.0, and with the revenge storyline in general – which is what gave the Korean film such propulsive narrative force.
2.) Josh Brolin. He’s getting slagged by many, but I thought he did solid work here. Again, the transformation is key. In Park’s original, Oh Dae-Su (Choi Min-sik) seems like such a badass from the get-go that even after we see him as his schlubby earlier self, he doesn’t quite seem like the same person. And, effectively, he’s not. Here, I liked the fact that Joe Doucett was still kind of a fuck-up even after his transformation. He can fight, but he’s still, basically, a loser. If Park’s film was a re-telling of The Odyssey (the name “Oh Dae-su” always felt like a giveaway to me), then Lee’s version feels more like a fable about transformation and never being able to run away from one’s true nature, like something out of La Fontaine or Aesop.
3.) A different moral vision. (Key word here being “liked,” not “preferred.”) I love the fact that in Park's original the villain doesn’t feel that, as a boy, he did anything wrong with his sister. In that world, his revenge on Oh Dae-su is both an attempt to ruin the man’s life but also to try to show him – in a sick, twisted way – what the villain thought of as a “beautiful” thing. Here, though, we don’t have that kind of complexity. There’s a horrific crime that’s been committed here, any way you cut it. The original is better in this regard, but I was glad Lee and co. didn’t try to replicate it, and instead went in a more over-the-top, grand guignol direction. In its own way, this gives the villain a different kind of pathos: He too is a victim of a horrific crime, and yet transfers the blame from the person who caused it to Joe, the person who set these series of particular events in motion.
4.) The humor. Maybe it’s just the fact that I always find Brolin funny, but I thought this Oldboy was funnier than the original. It’s interesting that Lee, who can be a real stylist, kept things relatively buttoned down here. Park’s hyper-stylization is, in some ways, what sells the ludicrous storyline of the original. In Lee’s film, though, the style is muted, but there’s a weird, deadpan goofiness, almost like it’s never quite on the level. The film hovers on the verge of comedy, which makes its brutality (at least for me) that much more shocking.
5.) Sharlto Copley. I’m just kind of amazed at this dude’s versatility, is all. From District 9 to Europa Report to Elysium to this. I mean Jesus.