I wasn't quite sure what to make of Spike Lee's remake of Oldboy at first. I've seen the South Korean original by Chan-wook Park many times and it's a favorite of mine. Was I going to be able to watch this remake objectively? I'm not the biggest fan of remakes either, but if there's one instance where it's not always a bad thing is when doing an American version of a foreign film. You can address issues with the story that may be cultural or lost in translation. Really the biggest problem with a remake of Oldboy is that it features some significant twists and disturbing story elements, so all the shock and surprise is gone for anyone that's seen the original. I tried looking at the remake from the perspective of someone that's never seen it before, and I think that's where Oldboy does work on some level.
After a night of massive drinking, Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) finds himself locked in what appears to be a hotel room. He's unable to escape and there's no explanation as to why he's there. After 20 years goes by, he's finally released still not knowing why. Joe's out for vengeance and discovering why this was done to him. He's befriended by a nurse, Marie (Elizabeth Olsen), who agrees to help him after learning his story. Eventually a mysterious man (Sharlto Copley) reveals himself as his captor and issues Joe a challenge to discover his real identity and why he imprisoned and tortured him. There's much more to the story than that, but I wanna try and keep this spoiler free for you folks out there that aren't familiar with it.
There are several changes between the two versions. As you'd might suspect, many of these changes don't add much to the story, and some serve to hand hold the audience through the film a bit more. There's a little more lead up in this version where we see more of Joe's work and personal behavior prior to his imprisonment. It's absolutely clear what kind of person he was. I didn't think this change was really necessary (the scene of Joe's bender goes on way too long), but it did allow them to show more growth from Joe while imprisoned. There's a change to the villain's back story which I felt made his motivation less sympathetic and much creepier. A minor change that felt like it may have been cultural was that the length of Joe's imprisonment was increased from 15 to 20 years. Again, without trying to spoil anything, this ages a certain character to make their profession and relationship to Joe a little more believable. One change I did like was at the end. The original version has an ambiguous, artsy ending, where this version has more of a full circle feel. I liked the finality of it.
One of the more obvious differences that was likely done to appeal to US audiences is that it's extremely bloody and violent, even more so than the original. The violence is even a little Tarantino-esque. The infamous "hammer scene" was changed up to make it more action oriented. In the original, it's more about the character becoming a force of nature, where in Spike Lee's version it felt more like an obligatory action scene because nobody had been killed in a while. It's over-choreographed (in some cases badly) and changed to have multiple floors, making it feel more like a video game.
Overall, it's paced well though, and I never found myself bored with it despite knowing exactly how it was going to turn out. While it doesn't have the same aesthetic as the original, Spike Lee put his own style on it and I thought there were some creative looking scenes.
Oldboy does feature some strong performances. Josh Brolin is very good at portraying the mental transformation of Joe, and even goes through a physical transformation as he molded himself into a force of vengeance. Elizabeth Olsen is also good as Marie and I though her performance and changes to her character was one of the distinct improvements over the original. Again, some of these changes seemed to be cultural, which is likely why I feel that way. Unfortunately, one performance that definitely was not an improvement was Sharlto Copley's choices as The Stranger. He's way over-the-top in that bad, mustache-twirling, Bond villain way. It seems he may have spent a little too much time at the Evil Villain Academy. It's almost comical how over-the-top it is, but since this wasn't made to be a campy film, it really undermines the seriousness of it. You can contrast that with Samuel L. Jackson's small role as Chaney, which was also a little over-the-top (is there a Jackson performance that isn't?), but had an element of fun to it.
If you haven't yet seen the original, or you're someone that doesn't have the patience for subtitles, then I think you'll enjoy Oldboy for the dark, twisted and violent thriller it is. Fans of the original, however, will likely find that it doesn't add anything new to the story. Much of the nuance and subtlety is gone, and Spike Lee's version is more of a telegraphed punch. Even for existing fans, I think it's worth a rent just to compare the two, but it's nothing that anyone needs to rush out and see in the theater.
3 (out of 5) Death Stars