American remakes of revered foreign language classics invariably fall short of the original, their unique quality and personality often lost in the cultural overhaul. Spike Lee’s abject Oldboy (2013), a wretched western transplant of acclaimed South Korean director Park Chan-wook’s twisted and operatic 2003 masterpiece, fails gloriously on every single level, entirely stripping away the mystique and dark malevolence of the original and substituting it with an ugly, charmless shell of a film (which, admittedly, has a depressingly throwaway appeal). Tacking on an wholly unnecessary prologue, Lee dispenses with any element of intrigue and mystery, offering instead a standard portrait of an incarcerated arse.
No Country for Old Men’s Josh Brolin plays Joe Doucett, an obnoxious, drunken advertising exec who snubs his young daughter’s birthday and messes up a potentially career-rehabilitating meeting. Waking up from his night on the tiles, he finds himself confined against his will in a strange and artificial kitsch-like hotel room. He remains imprisoned there for the next couple of decades until he’s mysteriously released one day and offered clues to find out who his captors were, and why he was held for that time. Presumably for reasons to distance his film from the original, Lee (working from Mark Protosevich’s distinctly characterless script) throws in a series of plot obstacles on the way to Oldboy’s big final reveal, as if those familiar with the brutal 2003 original will somehow be put off the scent.
However, these touches only help highlight the poor grasp Lee has on the material – from the laughably gratuitous product placement peppered throughout, to the wildly misjudged turn by Sharlto Copley’s villain, who has a horribly affected English accent and looks like he’s stepped out of the pages of some eighties DTV actioner. Brolin gives it everything, but he’s fighting a losing battle here. The original character (a superb Choi Min-sik) was driven by a primal, animalistic urge in his quest, but there’s an empty sadism to Brolin’s tortured figure. Even the recreation of the infamous hammer fight scene, however well- choreographed, lacks the frenzied vigour of the 2003 film, and the original’s haunting denouement transformed here into a nonsensical, jarringly sentimental mess is the final straw. A career nadir for Lee, Oldboy is proof if proof be needed that Hollywood should refrain from attempting the impossible.
Win a Blu-ray copy of Spike Lee’s Oldboy remake with our latest competition. Follow this link to enter.