Another week, another remake. At least, it feels like we get one each week, and with each remake comes the usual chorus from critics and audiences alike that we just don’t want them. When it comes to critiquing a remake, the best approach tends to involve an exercise in disassociation. Pretend the original doesn’t exist, and there may be treasure to be found in the redux. This is not an easy thing to do; more often than not, the original is something so singular and unforgettable that comparison cannot be avoided. Some succeed, but many more don’t. Even so, a wily writer and director will endeavour to step out of the shadow of the original film and make their own mark. Spike Lee is a very distinctive director, so the greatest disappointment with his remake of Oldboy is that it barely strays from the path laid down by its revered predecessor.”
The central chapter in his Vengeance trilogy, Chan-wook Park’s Oldboy was the crossover hit that opened up the possibilities of Korean cinema to Western audiences. It grapples with themes of regret, masculinity and revenge, all the while setting up one arresting image after another. It’s violently energetic and ripe with confidence, enough to get over some of its more outlandish plot twists. The tale of a man (played by Choi-Min Sik in the original) kidnapped and imprisoned for fifteen years for no apparent reason, then set free with five days to exact revenge, is riveting at the base level. Ask not why you were imprisoned, goes the tagline for the remake; ask why you were set free. Alas, Oldboy 2013 cannot summon the courage of its own tagline and break free of Park’s original vision.
The biggest difference between the films is the protagonist. Original prisoner Dae-Su Oh was an innocent man, who trained and changed to prepare for his freedom. In Lee’s version, Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) is a priggish alcoholic advertising executive; as challenging as that character sounds, it feels more like an attempt on the part of screenwriter Mark Prosetovich to make his inevitable captivity seem fitting. The original Oldboy had no qualms about bringing misery on people that ultimately didn’t deserve it. Apparently, Western audiences can’t swallow such a challenge, and only the bad should suffer. It’s a small change on the surface, but it’s this decision that shows Oldboy 2013 up for the cash cow that it’s designed to be.That said, its performance at the domestic box office has been absolutely dismal. Perhaps audiences are waking up to the fallacy of remakes like this. Unless you’re providing a challenge, what’s the point?
Lured into a one-night stand, Doucett awakens in a hotel room with no windows, no exit and no explanations. Naturally, he initially seeks answers and a way out, but years go by without either. He’s been made to disappear, and has been framed for his ex-wife’s murder into the bargain. After twenty years of regret, irregular gassings and stomach crunches, he’s released and given five days to find the answers. This would have been interesting if there was any attempt to make Oldboy 2013 stand out. In its design and direction, the best adjective to describe Oldboy is: lazy. The look of the film borrows liberally from that of the original. The hotel room is the same browned and mildewed hellhole as the original. DP Sean Bobbitt doesn’t so much nod to Chung-hoon Chung’s work in the original as copy it exactly. This is most notable in the recreation of the famous central fight scene in which our antihero takes on countless goons in a steadicam shot capturing every blow and crunch. In the new version Lee does remember to keep it dynamic, but it’s still not distinctive enough to stand out. The goons are in the employ of Samuel L. Jackson’s Chaney, the proprietor of the mystery hotel. He sports a blonde cropped mohawk and a primary-coloured wardrobe. Despite his look, Jackson is still an unmemorable presence in this unmemorable remix.
The first half of the film, for all its unoriginality, is too persistently violent and colourful to be dismissed outright. It’s only when the second hour kicks in, and Doucett remembers to put down his weapon of choice and begin investigations proper, that the pace drops a notch. Whilst on his merciless mission he encounters a young paramedic, Elisabeth Olsen’s Marie, who takes pity on Doucett and offers her help. To their credit, Brolin and Olsen bring gristle and grace to their respective roles, something which also helped the original film stay grounded. Yet whilst Park’s vision kept the pith and vinegar flowing, the second act of Oldboy 2013 flags as Doucett and Marie begin digging for answers in Doucett’s past. It’s all box-ticking detective work which leads to the answers in all their warped glory. Ultimately, the revelations of the final answers are scuppered, and there are three reasons for this. Firstly, editor Barry Alexander Brown chops the film to shreds, opting for cuts where a pause could have been welcomed. The frenzied chopping reeks of notes from a studio boardroom demanding a runtime under two hours. It’s rarely an edit job is this noticeable or grating. Secondly, our nominal nemesis comes in the form of Sharlto Copley. To say much about his character Adrian would be a lurch towards spoilers, suffice it to say that the District 9 man tops his hammy turn in Elysium with an accent so plummy and a snootiness so out of place that it’s laughable. He’s simply dreadful, and attempts to explain his affectations do little to offset the damage.
The third factor in Oldboy’s failure is an odd one. While many remakes take flak for changing original plot details, this one deviates very little. Anyone expecting Lee or Protosevich to dumb down the crueller twists of the climax might be in for a surprise. Yet, here we arrive at a catch-22. A remake will not appeal to people who liked the original (In this case, that’s most people). Unless you change something at a fundamental plot level (especially when the visual style apes the original), the necessity of any remake dwindles significantly. Oldboy doesn’t, and clearly hopes that enough people are subtitle-resistant enough to make this redo worth a look. But box-office figures don’t lie; it has unequivocally flopped. It doomed itself from the start by not doing enough to make itself appeal to the original fans, and people clearly aren’t in the mood for a bloody revenge thriller at Thanksgiving when they can watch their families argue over pumpkin pie and yams. Even if it was released at any other time of year, Oldboy’s po-faced refusal to do anything different is its downfall. Anyone who never saw the original might enjoy the game leading turns or the twists and turns, but on a technical level it pales next to an original which, whilst imperfect, is a singular experience. It tries, but this Oldboy is just old hat.