Film Review: Spike Lee’s “Oldboy”

By Christopher Bourne

“Oldboy,” Spike Lee’s riff on Park Chan-wook’s 2003 film is, as many others have noted, not signed by the director with his usual signature of “A Spike Lee Joint,” but instead the much more mundane “A Spike Lee Film,” apparently a first for him. The rote impersonality of this credit is, unfortunately, mostly indicative of the movie that follows. I have to say at the outset that I was more than willing to give Lee the benefit of the doubt on this; unlike many, I was not instantly against the idea of remaking “Oldboy.” I don’t consider that film, or any other film for that matter, as a sacred text that should never be messed with. Remaking a film is fundamentally not much different than a musician doing a cover tune. If one has a distinctive take on the original, and can bring something interesting to the table, such an endeavor is certainly artistically defensible.

The problem with “Oldboy,” however, is that, oddly enough, both the film’s creators and their detractors are in perfect agreement with respect to their reverence for Park Chan-wook’s original filmic text. This new version is so utterly shackled to the original that it is barely able to breathe or have a life of its own. Familiarity with Park’s “Oldboy” makes Lee’s “Oldboy” a very Brechtian experience; instead of being fully involved in the story or its characters, one dwells on both what Lee borrows from Park and the minor variations he and screenwriter Mark Protosevich have come up with to distinguish their version. A mental checklist gets ticked off as you watch: there’s the dumplings; here he is coming out of a suitcase; there he is fighting a bunch of dudes with a hammer. Then there’s the slight differences, the wink-and-a-nod homages: Samuel L. Jackson, sporting a blond mohawk, as one of the jailers, whose foul-mouthed shtick gets more tired with each film; Josh Brolin stares down an octopus in an aquarium; Brolin’s hammer fight ups the ante with even more elaborate choreography and multiple levels. But it all treats Park’s version as sacrosanct, going beyond homage and into slavish deference, so much so that discussing this film can’t help but devolve into a rather tedious exercise of comparison and contrast.

It’s a shame, really, that so much time and talent has gone into a work that is never much more than a pale shadow of its original source. Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (who also shot all of Steve McQueen’s features) comes up with some very arresting compositions, and Josh Brolin delivers an intense, fiercely committed performance, though he lacks the volcanic ferocity of Choi Min-sik in the original. Spike Lee has said in interviews that Park Chan-wook’s message to the filmmakers was, “Don’t do my film. Make your own.” Too bad that Spike’s “Oldboy” ultimately fails to follow through on that sound advice.

It is important to note, however, that for most of “Oldboy”’s viewers, none of this will be an issue. As much as it may hurt our collective pride to admit it, the fact is that those of us who watch, think about, and write about international films and filmmakers are a fairly marginal lot. The vast majority of people who will go to theaters to see “Oldboy” – which seems to be a very small number, given the film’s dismal box office receipts this past weekend – will have never heard of either Park Chan-wook or his version of this material. So maybe this will work better for them. As for those of us who have seen Park’s “Oldboy”: in that film, there is a woman who can hypnotize people into forgetting things; perhaps her services would be required to erase memories of Park’s work, allowing us to actually enjoy Lee’s take.

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