R, 104 min.
Director: Spike Lee
Writers: Mark Protosevich, Garon Tsuchiya (manga), Nobuaki Minegishi (manga)
Starring: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, Sharlto Copley, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Imperioli, Pom Klementieff, James Ransone, Max Casella, Linda Emond, Lance Reddick, Hannah Ware, Richard Portnow
Why do American filmmakers feel the need to dumb down their material for the audience? Spike Lee is a smart filmmaker. He’s made films that don’t dumb it down for people. Why does he dumb it down when remaking a brilliant film from South Korea?
There seems to be this need for Americans to over explain everything. Chan-wook Park’s “Oldboy” is a film buried in its own mystery, and the reason it works so well is that the audience has to work for it too. We have to go through a portion of the torture of the main character before the truth is revealed, making that revelation all that much more painful for the character and the audience.
This new version of “Oldboy” seems too intent on making sure it doesn’t leave the audience behind. In doing so, not only does the audience easily keep pace of its developments, but also sometimes we get ahead of them. The screenplay places far too much emphasis on the daughter early on in the film. For those of you who are familiar with the original, you know why this is such a mistake. And even the pursuit of just who is placing this torture upon him, makes it far too easy for the main character to solve it.
The flashbacks, which I don’t remember from the original, are the biggest mistake as they are dramatically unnecessary. They suppose the audience cannot follow the developments of the character’s past without the visuals to make them clear. Perhaps the original did use the flashbacks as well, but not so heavily as they’re used here. They make everything too clear and focused, and one of the original’s strengths was that notion that you could feel the character’s sense of their lifelong beat down making it difficult to be sure about anything.
The film is well made by Spike Lee, who certainly gets the grittiness necessary to tell it. He does a good job reflecting the time of the main character’s imprisonment by showing various dark moments in recent American history reported on the news channels he watches as they were happening. However, despite Lee’s grittiness, it is during his recreation of the original’s most remarkable scene, when the lead takes on a large number of goons with a hammer, where he looses his footing. Instead of gritty like the original, this scene comes across as too choreographed and a little bit goofy.
While this isn’t the version of “Oldboy” I’d recommend anyone see; it may be an entry point for some American audiences who aren’t so brave as to seek out cinematic fare from such an imaginative film industry as South Korea’s. I just worry that this film isn’t significant enough to really build that bridge for many. So in conclusion—just rent the Korean version instead.