April 10, 2019 The Anatomy of a Remake: Oldboy
Coming out of South Korea, Park Chan-Wook’s Neo-Noir Action Thriller Oldboy became a sensation upon its release in late 2003. The film told the story of a man who, after being kidnapped and kept captive for over 15 years, is let out on a 5-day deadline to find his captor. Its drama, solid writing, and direction earned its renown. It also gained notoriety for its incest-related twist, its single-shot hammer-armed fight scene, and Lead Actor Choi Min-sik (Failan 2001, I Saw the Devil 2010) eating a live octopus.
So, people were surprised when rumors of a Western adaptation with the famed Steven Spielberg and Will Smith started spreading. Smith rarely picks up edgy projects, and even Spielberg’s darker works had something to soften their grimness. Yet it was reported in 2008 that Spielberg was pursuing the rights for Dreamworks, alongside a writer for its script.
Although, fans eager to see a Hollywood take on Wook’s work, it would have been disappointed in two ways. The first was that Smith himself told MTV “We’re working from the comic and we haven’t done anything other than talk about it.” Garon Tsuchiya’s original 1996 manga series Old Boy had the same plot. However, its protagonist, Shinichi Goto, was more mentally stable than the 2003’s Oh Dae-su (Choi). It still had action, though the fights were less bloody and fatal. Nor did it have its incest-laden twists, favoring an ambiguous ending instead.
Nonetheless, it could have been promising, but the second disappointment came in November 2009 when it was cancelled. Dreamworks had been talking to the Korean film’s studio, Show East, for the remake rights. Then Futaba, the original manga’s publisher, disputed Show East’s right to hold the discussions in the first place. By the time it was settled, Dreamworks stepped away, and Mandate Pictures stepped in.
In 2011, Mandate issued a press release revealing they were going to remake Oldboy, with the Oscar winning Spike Lee in the director’s chair, and the focus shifted back to Wook’s film than the manga. Mark Protosevich had previously been in talks to write the Spielberg project before being brought in to write Mandate’s film.
Josh Brolin (W 2008, Avengers: Infinity War 2018) was set to play the lead. While the villain role passed through Christian Bale, Colin Firth, and Clive Owen before finally settling on Sharlto Copley (District 9 2009, Chappie 2015). It was also the first Spike Lee project to feature Samuel L. Jackson (Pulp Fiction 1994, Glass 2019) since his 1991 film Jungle Fever.
The plot follows the same beats; Joe Doucett (Brolin) is abducted and trapped within a hotel room for 20 years. Eventually, he is freed with just a cellphone and some money. A man known as The Stranger (Copley) calls him up and tells him he has 46 hours to figure out his identity or he will kill Doucett’s daughter Mia. With his old friend Chucky (Michael Imperioli: Summer of Sam 1999, The Sopranos series) and a nurse called Marie Sebastian (Elizabeth Olsen: Godzilla 2014, Wind River 2017), Doucett hits the trail to track The Stranger down.
Despite adhering close to Wook’s film, with a similar twist and hammer sequence, the film bombed at the box office. After its November 27, 2013 release, it ended up making a worldwide gross of approximately $5.2 million on a estimated $30 million budget. It got a mixed critical reception, with Variety’s Justin Chang describing it as “a picture that… feels content to shadow its predecessor’s every move while falling short of its unhinged, balls-out delirium.” While Matt Zoller Seitz of RogerEbert.com said it was “Lee’s most exciting movie since (2006’s) Inside Man.”
The film ended up passing by with little notice. Even Lee and Brolin ended up disappointed in the final cut. Lee had initially produced a 150-minute cut, but Mandate’s producers re-edited the film down to 105 minutes. As a result, Lee changed his usual ‘A Spike Lee Joint’ credit to ‘A Spike Lee Film.’ Few people have seen Lee’s cut, though Brolin himself favored it over the studio version in an interview with the LA Times. Given the film’s cool reception, it is unlikely to resurface anytime soon.
Is it all that bad? Well… as far as Lee’s work goes, it is still a step-up from 2004’s She Hate Me or NBA 2k16’s “Livin’ Da Dream” story mode. The action is bloody and brutal enough, though its hammer scene – while fine – does not strike as finely as the original. Brolin does a fine job as Doucett, as does Olsen as Marie. Their pairing feels more artificial than that between Choi and Kang Hye-Jeong (The Butterfly 2001, Battle Ground 625 2005) in the original.
The same goes for The Stranger’s plans here. Lee’s derivations from the original’s formula were largely minor, but his remake’s climax has changes that make it sillier. The original’s villain, Woo-Jin Lee (Yu Jie-Tae: Ditto 2000, Mai Ratima 2012) was not exactly subtle. Copley’s Stranger is some extra mustache wax away from tying women to train tracks – a plan less Rube Goldberg-esque than what is offered here.
Ultimately, Spike Lee’s Oldboy starts off as a serviceable Action film before its writing starts falling apart. It might have suited viewers who found the 2003 film’s creepier elements too much. Except the original manga already fills that niche and has tighter writing overall. There have been worse remakes out there, but this is one of the more disappointing ones. It would not hurt viewers to watch the film, though it recommended to stick with Park Chan-Wook’s original.