Twitter Plot Summary: Spike Lee remakes the Korean original, this time with added exposition, Elizabeth Olsen and Sharlto Copley with a weird accent.
Rather than appreciate films in their original language, it is often the responsibility of the American film industry to adapt those films for the English speaking audience. In some instances this works very well – Matt Reeves’ remake of Swedish vampire horror Let The Right One In being the most notable. In others it’s a mixture of good and bad elements rather than being out and out terrible, and that is where Spike Lee’s 2013 remake of Oldboy lies.
There are certain amendments that are appropriate updates to the original – the depiction of violence and Spike Lee’s direction are both on top form, the violence clearly staged and well choreographed, and Lee’s direction demonstrating his handle on style and storytelling. As in the original it is an incredibly dark story, one which would prove unfortunate to spoil. Suffice to say, the narrative has the same level of twists and turns as the original, albeit often with a Westernised edge. The same gut-punch ending is presented with its own original twist, and is as equally as valid as the 2003 film whilst being entirely different and very cleverly structured.
The casting represents everything a modern American movie needs – big name stars add gravitas to the darkness. Josh Brolin provides a strong central lead when he’s beating people up and directed to stare stoically into the middle distance, but when he has to deliver exposition or emote he’s ill-suited for the role. Indie sensibility is provided by Elizabeth Olsen as Marie, a nurse who finds herself helping Joseph. Samuel L Jackson rocks up with a funky hairstyle and plays himself for a couple of scenes, no more. Michael Imperioli is a reliable face, but he’s also not given much to work with.
Unlike the original, however, there are many elements that push it from serious drama and into self parody. Most notably is Sharlto Copley as the man who imprisoned Joseph, an uppity English-accented villain with a deliberately chiselled beard and immaculate dress sense. His past and motivations are interesting, however his presentation as a sub-par Austin Powers-esque Englishman is more than a little suspect. You half expect him to say “Groovy, baby” at any given moment, not a good thing for creating tension. Meanwhile the opening features Brolin muttering to himself in an expository manner and it is this section in particular that doesn’t work at all. It feels forced and at odds with the rest of the film, a sequence that seems determined to do something a little different to the original and as a result loses all focus.
On its own merits this remake is a moderately competent action thriller, albeit one that is in far too much of a rush to get to the big finale. It would have perhaps worked better had Lee been permitted to release his extended edit rather than this all too brisk 100 minute cut. Secondary characters would have had more opportunity to breathe, and Joseph’s story arc would have had more impact on reaching the final act. As it is, whilst some areas are improvements over the 2003 original, there are many more that aren’t.