Shortly before Gus Van Sant released his inexplicable shot-for-shot remake of Psycho, there was a weird rumor going around that the entire project had been a fake-out — that it was only a remake until the shower scene, after which it veered off in a completely different, unexpected, and unexplored direction. In retrospect, that would’ve been a lot more compelling than the Xerox that Van Sant cooked up, and I couldn’t help but think of that story while watching Spike Lee’s new remake of Park Chan-wook’s 2003 South Korean film Oldboy. It’s not that Lee’s film is a slavish imitation of Park’s. It’s that when you’ve got a property like Psycho or Oldboy where so much of the impact is predicated on surprises at its conclusion, the already dubious duty of creating a remake can feel like even more of a lost cause.
Consider yourself warned, spoiler-phobes: for the purposes of discussing and comparing the two films, I’m going to operate under the assumption that you’ve seen the original (you’ve had a decade, for God’s sake), and will thus allude to its plot turns, while keeping quiet about those that are maintained and changed in the remake. The broad strokes of the plot are basically the same: a real sonofabitch is secretly imprisoned for a lengthy duration (15 years in the original, 20 in the remake) for reasons untold. While he is locked up, he is framed for the murder of his wife; when he is finally released (just as inexplicably), he attempts to find his long-estranged daughter, while figuring out who put him away (and why), and exact his vengeance.
The news that Lee was behind this maybe-not-entirely-necessary remake softened the blow a bit — after all, this is a filmmaker with a distinctive voice and style, and while he’s maybe not the most consistent director working, his worst films are, at the very least, fascinating failures. A vision as sui generis as Park Chan-wook’s could only work if refracted through the prism of an equally idiosyncratic artist, and many of Lee’s additions to the tale are worthwhile. He spends more time in the opening passages, set in 1993, establishing his protagonist, Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) as a hard-drinking sleazeball. His mental state is nicely refracted by the scuzzy desperation of Sean Bobbit’s photography, all heavy grain and Dutch angles and bobbing and weaving. Lee also takes his time — to great effect — in the imprisonment sequence, which runs considerably longer and captures both an encroaching madness and a Rip Van Winkle element that the original film only hinted at.
Once Joe is out (and Lee replicates the unforgettable overhead shot of him emerging from a trunk in the middle of a field of grass), the adjustments are more cosmetic. Elizabeth Olsen’s Marie, who helps him on his search, is a nurse instead of a sushi chef. Michael Imperioli, as his best friend, runs a bar instead of an Internet café (ah, the changes of a decade). The voice-over narration, present throughout the original, is only heard in the letters Joe writes to his daughter while locked up.
So nothing earth-shattering — and some of Lee’s flourishes are welcome. Marie is a much stronger and more interesting character than Mido in the original (and her side of the plot is thankfully free of most of the original’s rape-y overtones). Samuel L. Jackson, once a member of Spike’s rep company, makes a long-overdue return in their first collaboration since Jungle Fever (to put that into perspective, they made that film before Joe’s kidnapping). And Lee not only apes the film’s most iconic shot, the single-take scene of our “hero” taking on a gang of thugs with a hammer, but he tops it, taking it literally to another level. That move is thrillingly audacious, the moment when I allowed myself to believe that this remake could equal its predecessor, since you don’t make a picture like this one timidly.
Alas, that was before the entrance of the antagonist, Adrian Pryce. He’s played by Sharlito Copley (from District 9), and it’s a role that was reportedly turned down by several fine actors, including Christian Bale, Colin Firth, and Clive Owen. There’s no knowing what any of them would have done with it, but all would have certainly done better than Copley, who has all the menace of a Scooby Doo bad guy. It’s a performance so thoroughly miscalculated that I kept hoping it was some sort of a red herring — surely we’re not to believe that this is actually our villain?
The first hour or so of Lee’s Oldboy is so gripping that it’s dispiriting to watch the wheels fall off the wagon so spectacularly in the third act. It’s not just that Copley is so bizarrely bad; there’s also the matter of the romance (the big, stunning reveal of the original), and how Lee is going to handle it. The closer Lee comes to the film’s conclusion, the more you realize that he and screenwriter Mark Protosevich (I Am Legend) have painted themselves into a corner. At first, it seems as though they’ve discovered a clever way out — knowing that much of the audience has seen the original and knows where it’s going, it appears that Lee is toying with us, aware of what we know, using our knowledge of the original against us. There are scenes, particularly in the second half, where Marie seems to be up to something, perhaps “in on it” in a way that she wasn’t in the original, and we keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. And then…
Well, more I cannot say. But let’s just note that the big reveal is a particularly egregious case of “Ugh, why did we even bother,” and if the new resolution for Joe is ingenious, if the filmmaking is big and baroque and blood-splattered, if the film is a reminder that Lee is among our premier cinematic stylists, his Oldboy is still unwieldy at best and a mess at worst. Its most accurate descriptor would be “interesting,” and while I’m certainly not one for discouraging the output of interesting movies, if you’re going to remake a great film like Oldboy, you’ve got to do a helluva lot better than that.