4Overall Score
Reader Rating: (2 Votes)

In this 2013 American “reinterpretation” of Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy – which was itself loosely based on a ‘90s manga by Tsuchiya Garon – a misogynistic, binge-drinking ad exec (Josh Brolin) is mysteriously abducted and held captive for 20 years without any explanation. Then, just as suddenly as he was taken, he’s released back into the world with a stack of cash, a phone, and a hankering for bloody, violent vengeance to help him find out why he was kidnapped in the first place.

Full disclosure: Park’s original 2003 version of Oldboy is one of my all-time favorite movies. As with a lot of people, it was the film that first exposed me to Korean cinema, and I still consider it to be possibly the high watermark of modern revenge thrillers (from a country that seems to specialize in them).

That said, I was more than open to enjoying this version from Spike Lee and writer Mark Protosevich. In fact, I fully expected to. Remaking a movie that won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival is, to put it mildly, a fool’s errand, and I don’t know that any filmmaker would have been able to deliver something that completely justified its existence next to Park’s visceral masterwork of baroque melodrama. At the very least, though, with a director of Lee’s caliber at the helm and a hugely talented cast like the one assembled here, it seemed like moviegoers could hope for an interesting twist on an already great film.

Unfortunately, that’s not at all what we got.

The (Partly) Good

I don’t mean to be overly negative. This movie isn’t a complete train wreck. But I do want to make clear certain things because I think many critics, even in their negative assessments, have kind of let Spike Lee off the hook on this one. For me, it’s a serious challenge to name anything this version of Oldboy does well without also needing to add some negative qualifier or point out that it only works because they pulled it straight out of the original.

So, for instance, one of the most talked-about parts is the acting. Generally speaking, it’s pretty solid, and especially in Brolin’s case, it deserves the chatter it’s gotten. Taking on the role first played by the great Choi Min-sik, Brolin shoulders a lot of the film’s weight as Joe Doucett (Oh Dae-su in the Korean version), and he manages to deliver a committed, engaging, nuanced performance that’s without question the highlight of the movie.

On just a physical level, though, while his transformation from slob to lean fighting machine during his imprisonment is impressive, it doesn’t quite succeed in all the areas it needs to. For one thing, if you do the math, Doucett is supposed to have been in his 20s when was abducted. Not to slight Brolin’s range as an actor, but he makes for one ancient-looking 20-something-year-old. Doesn’t Will Smith even crack a joke about that in Men In Black 3?

Moreover, for the 20 years he supposedly spent eating dumplings in solitary confinement, the actor’s craggy mug barely looks a day older than it did at the beginning of the movie. Which makes it kind of hard to swallow when his former best friend Chucky (The Sopranos Michael Imperioli) doesn’t recognize him staring right at him from a foot away. Must have been the haircut, I guess. Also problematic: even the pre-abduction Doucett felt like he could tear somebody’s head off with his bare hands – look at those biceps! – which, compared to the Korean version, kind of kills the idea of a night-and-day physical transformation.

“Fat” Doucett – source: FilmDistrict

These could be considered fairly small issues, but they point to a larger problem with remaking a film on the level of Oldboy. Like physicians, filmmakers doing a remake, regardless of the quality of the original, should at least abide by a principle of non-maleficence a la the Hippocratic Oath: “First, do no harm.” When even the best part of this version falls way short of the original, you kind of have to wonder why they bothered in the first place. And although Brolin’s acting is a highlight, this movie features other performances that stand out in the wrong way. I’m a huge Sharlto Copley fan, but he missed the mark on this one. Also, did Spike Lee mean to hire Sam Jackson circa The Spirit?

Another highlight is the cinematography. Thanks to frequent Steve McQueen DP Sean Bobbit, who shot on a combination of 35, 16, and 8mm films (for all you cinematography junkies), Oldboy is definitely beautiful to look at. But even in terms of just visuals, I can’t give it an unqualified thumbs up. For anyone who’s seen the Korean version, it’s tough not to notice just how closely a lot of the cinematography seems to adhere to the same style established by Park – right down to specific shot setups, color palette, and mise-en-scène.

Yet, in very obvious ways, it still comes off feeling neutered by comparison as Bobbit and Lee opt out of a lot of the experimental bravura and over-the-top swagger that helped the older movie toe the line between absurdist comedy and horrific tragedy. The result is a far more buttoned-down, conventional, and altogether audience-friendly movie than should have ever been made given the thematic content of Oldboy.

The (Entirely) Bad

It’s tough to say which is the bigger crime when it comes to this version, though: that for the most part it seems content to be a stale retread of the original, or that what it does change is either of no consequence or fundamentally alters the nature of the story in a way that makes the whole thing way too generic.

Keep in mind, Lee insisted that this is not a remake, but a “reinterpretation.” I’m not sure how he justifies that since it hews closer to the original film than all but the most slavish of remakes (think Gus Van Sant’s Psycho).

Even the things you’d think would have to be changed by virtue of the fact that it takes place in the U.S. instead of South Korea aren’t. Asian elements from the first film, for instance, aren’t swapped out for American equivalents; they’re just “incorporated” as part of the visual aesthetic. Which isn’t exactly done in the most seamless of ways, and some of it just doesn’t make sense. Why, for one thing, is Chucky’s bar located in the middle of China Town (other than to provide opportunities to shoot Asian-looking stuff)? Or why does Joe Doucett get fed dumplings?

Oldboy – source: FilmDistrict

Probably the biggest offender, though, is Sharlto Copley’s sexy Asian bodyguard, who, of course, being Asian, knows karate and doubles as a masseuse. Not to lob accusations of racism around too lightly, but it does strike me as somewhat ironic that a director like Lee, who built his career partially on challenging racial stereotypes, seems perfectly happy to traffic in them himself so long as they involve a culture that’s foreign to him, too. Considering that a recent survey of 2013 movies found that a female extraterrestrial is just as likely to have speaking lines in a movie as an Asian woman, having a cardboard cutout stereotype instead of writing a real character seems particularly egregious.

Getting back to the subject of adaptation, Lee’s reinterpretive coopting of elements from the original extends to entire sequences. That includes the legendary single-take corridor fight. As by far the most famous scene from the 2003 film, it was bound to make an appearance. But what’s surprising is how little they changed. In a lame attempt to one-up the original, Lee’s version takes place across three floors instead of just one.

Also, in lieu of the realistic-sounding Foley effects of Park’s film, this one goes for a more video game-y aesthetic with the sound design: every punch and hammer blow is bone-crunchingly powerful like something out of Street Fighter. Other than those small tweaks, though, the whole fight plays out almost blow for blow the same as it did in the original movie. Except now, instead of being a jaw-dropping feat of kinetic filmmaking, it just feels kind of ridiculous and, well, like a video game.

Because this movie is so faithful to the original, it’s even more problematic when they decide to depart from it. As mentioned, a lot of the changes are of zero consequence or only serve to make the whole thing more palatable to American audiences. Others, though, have a huge impact on the overall story that, frankly, I’m not sure Lee and Protosevich thought through beforehand.

Not to get into spoilers, but a few key changes actually shift the entire nature of the story from one about bloody, nihilistic revenge to a more wholesome, audience-friendly, and just plain boring “save the girl” plot in the vein of Taken. I’m not sure how many more times I can use terms like “neutered” or “toothless” before they  lose all meaning, but they definitely apply here. Oh, and don’t even get me started on the “happy” twist ending.

How did Park Chan-wook not get credit for this?

According to Lee, before Brolin agreed to do the film, he approached Park and asked for his blessing. Park allegedly told the actor, “Make your own film, don’t make ours.” Well, somewhere along the way, that message must have gotten garbled. The thing that genuinely mystifies me, though, is how Park and his co-writers didn’t get some kind of credit on this while the manga author did. To be clear, Lee’s version has about as much to do with the manga as Darren Aronofsky’s upcoming Noah has to do with the Genesis account.

Most of what people think of when they talk about Oldboy were things introduced by Park and his collaborators, and those are specifically what Lee borrows. To fail to give proper credit – coupled with Lee’s insistence that this version isn’t a remake at all – comes off feeling more than a little disingenuous, as if the filmmaker is trying to hide his sources instead of doing what many a U.S. remake claims is one of the positive side effects of the whole remake process, namely to draw attention to the original.

Oldboy – source: FilmDistrict

Despite all my griping, though, I’m still not opposed to the idea an American version of something like Oldboy. In fact, I could imagine somebody coming along in another 10 or 20 years and really killing it – in a good way, that is. Largely because Park’s version is so completely his own, it’s the kind of property that actually begs for other interpretations (as opposed to just a derivative English-language rehash). Imagine, for instance, a director like Nicolas Winding Refn putting his own spin on the original source material with, say, Tom Hardy in the lead. Or hey, in retrospect, maybe the Spielberg/Will Smith version wouldn’t have been such a bad idea, after all. At least they planned to adapt the manga.


From the first few minutes all the way to its poorly conceived finale, this version of Oldboy is a case study in how not to do a remake. It pulls off the seemingly impossible task of following the original too closely while also being simultaneously less stylish and less realistic, less comedic and less serious, less complex and more convoluted, and overall, just a drag to watch compared with Park’s film.

Newcomers might find a few things to enjoy. Brolin’s performance, particularly, is impressive and would’ve been a welcome turn for the actor if the movie hadn’t failed on so many other levels. It’s also pretty striking from a visual standpoint – that is, until you compare it to the Korean version. Overall, though, this feels like exactly the kind of Hollywood-ized rehash that fans were afraid of, complete with ridiculous overblown fight sequences and a convenient (and nonsensical) happy ending meant to appeal to Western audiences.

Which version of Oldboy did you prefer? Sound off in the comments!


Oblivion 2013

Oldboy (2013)


Cast:   a.o.

Writing: Garon Tsuchiya & Nobuaki Minegishi (manga), Mark Protosevich (screenplay)

Cinematography: Sean Bobbitt

Genre: Action, Drama, Mystery

104 minutes

IMDb | Trailer