Criticising Hollywood for remaking classics has long become a cliché among hardcore film fans. Remakes can at times be beneficial for everyone involved, bringing a classic movie to a new audience, and giving us a fresh new take on the original. Movies such as Martin Scorsese’s The Departed and John Carpenter’s The Thing achieved all this and more. This however is not one of those movies. Not even close. This is remake is terrible.
The Korean original Oldboy with its dark, oddball atmosphere, legitimately confusing plot, and masterful direction and visuals, was an instant cult classic. It opened the eyes of millions everywhere to the joys of Korean cinema, one of the world’s most creatively prosperous cinematic landscapes. It’s no wonder that people wanted to remake it. Most of the original plot line has stayed intact. Josh Brolin, of No Country for Old Men Fame, plays an alcoholic business man, who is captured and held in solitary confinement in a hotel room style prison for twenty years, without warning or reason. He spends the years watching TV, shadowboxing and being fed the leftovers of Chinese takeaways as he gradually goes insane. He is released without reason and warning, and naturally wants to know what’s going on – as you would. It’s just a pity they didn’t do a better job with what made the original great.
Oldboy has indeed been stripped of what made it special in the first place. The uniquely eccentric and disturbing film has become a mere genre piece, not that much different from any other off-the-peg thriller. Spike Lee is very much an auteur in his own right, having been in the business well over 28 years and having penned classics such as Do the Right Thing and Malcom X – both great movies that masterfully portrayed the nature of black America. This film, regrettably, shows nothing of his unique creative vision. Lee seems to be on autopilot the whole time.
Violence, one of the defining elements of the original film, and part of what made it so endlessly powerful and engrossing, has radically changed in nature in this movie. The action scenes, though well directed, have lost any sense of real dread, and at times the fight scenes seem like accepts from a future Spike Lee musical. The infamous scene where the lead actor eats a live octopus has been replaced by the lead actor instead staring at a live octopus, but doing so very intensely. Even the music, seems like it could have been in a thousand other movies, and rarely rises above generic thriller troupes.
Perhaps, I’m being too harsh on the film. On its own terms it may well be a perfectly serviceable thriller. The acting, directing, screenwriting are all fine; the cinematography of Sean Bobbitt, who worked with Steve McQueen on Hunger and Shame for example, was excellent. However it has none of the weird and wonderful ingenuity that made the original so compelling, and considering the hatred that it is inevitably going to garner from foreign film fans, my criticism might seem a bit unnecessary.
Oldboy is many things: startling, well-paced, and visually sumptuous, but it is one thing above all else – pointless. In a film so concerned with finding out motivations and how and why events were put into motion, it’s a wonder nobody thought why they were making this film.