A movie like Spike Lee’s Oldboy is destined to accrue a healthy amount of haters long before the film is released. Lee’s Oldboy is a remake of Park Chan-wook’s legendary Korean film of the same name, and in the decade since its release, Chan-wook’s film has developed cult classic-like status. The film has a loyal fan base who made it clear from the announcement of Lee’s remake that they simply were not interested.
And I get it. I fully understand the uproar over Lee’s film. Chan-wook’s Oldboy is a marvelous mystery thriller that needn’t be tampered with. But first off, it’s important to explain how Lee wants his film to be perceived. He’s stated many times (including when I heard him speak in person last February) that Oldboy was not a remake of Chan-wook’s film, but rather a reinterpretation of Garon Tsuchiya and Nobuaki Minegishi’s source material, the Japanese manga, “Old Boy.” Interesting then, that in the opening credits for Lee’s film, we’re presented with a title card reading: “Based on the Korean film Oldboy.”
When Lee’s Oldboy was announced, I deliberately ignored Chan-wook’s original. Although I’ve seen the film a few times, and even own it on DVD, I haven’t watched it in many years. I didn’t want to go into Lee’s film wondering why he cut this scene or added that one. The result was an experience mostly void of comparison. Sure, I remember the plot and twists and turns of Chan-wook’s film, but I’m not married to it in a way that forced me to scrutinized every aspect of Lee’s film. So as I walked out of the theater yesterday, content with what I’d seen, I realized this is the only way people are going to enjoy Lee’s film. By ignoring the original, you open yourself up to a pleasantly objective experience. Is Lee’s film better than Chan-wook’s? No, it is not. But is it a good film in its own right? Yes, certainly.
The beginning of the film introduces us to Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) a schlubby, boozy New York businessman barely keeping his life together. After blowing a particularly big business deal, Joe goes on a bender, stumbling drunk and aimless around town. He awakens the next morning in a small hotel room. A hotel room without a door, windows, or a phone. And it is in this room that Joe sits for Twenty. Fucking. Years. He has no idea why he’s here and when he’ll get out, so after a few years of self-pity, he starts to occupy himself constructively. He does yoga, lifts makeshift weights, gives up the sauce, and so on. Then, on one random bright and sunshiny day, Joe emerges from a large trunk locker placed in the middle of a field, and he spends the duration of the film trying to figure out his decades-long captivity.
Oldboy turns into a labyrinth tale of jealousy, trust and forgiveness (or the lack thereof) that begs to be seen onscreen. If you’re a diehard fan of the original, you may already have your mind made up about Lee’s film, and will thereby gain nothing from it. If you’re a fan of Spike Lee, maybe you’re hoping his Oldboy will offer you something new. Me? I marvel at Lee’s raw, unrestricted vision of the world, specifically as it relates to American failure and corruption. I was game to see if Lee could pull Oldboy off, but it appears that my interest has been met with bittersweet results.
I’ve seen every film Spike Lee has made, and I can tell you with complete confidence that Oldboy is the most unrecognizable Spike Lee film Spike Lee has ever made. Absent is the director’s distinct style – the varying film stock, the refreshing camera trickery, the bombastic musical score – sure, all of that is here, but it’s only available in brief glimpses (for example, blink and you’ll miss the use of Lee’s signature double dolly shot). But is this a legitimate criticism? Is it fair for me to disapprove of a film simply because it doesn’t feel like previous films made by its director? No, it’s not. Oldboy doesn’t feel like a Spike Lee Joint, but it’s an enjoyable enough film of its kind. Josh Brolin delivers a deliciously entertaining-turned-convincingly vengeful performance, while Sean Bobbitt proves again that he’s one of our finest living cinematographers. There’s plenty to appreciate about this Oldboy, but it’s up to you to decide if you give a damn to begin with. B