Remakes can be tricky propositions. In an interview with Slant Magazine, Spike Lee notes that he met with Park Chan-wook, the director of the 2003 Oldboy, where he was given the following advice: “Don’t do my film. Make your own”. Lee is a director with a distinct personality that can be identified throughout a majority of his output. From the verbal acrobatics of his debut She’s Gotta Have It to the rigid racial commentaries in Do the Right Thing and Jungle Fever to his incredible attention to social milieu in 25th Hour and When the Levees Break, Lee has a penetrating style that’s evocative of his upbringing and teachings. Oldboy may have the superficial flourishes that define Lee’s work, but it’s arguably not a film constructed under his own volition. Rather, Lee is heeding Chan-wook’s request, but approaching the material with a carpenter’s mentality - designing a film with incredible formal proficiency but not signing off on the final product as his own.
Lee and writer Mark Protosevich tinker with Chan-wook’s initial narrative from the start, providing the central character with a bit more back story before enduring a 20-year sentence. Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) is framed as an alcohol-addled ad executive, with his abuse looking to stem from a past trauma. Following a night of drunken debauchery, Douchett finds himself imprisoned. Fed a regular diet of cereal and dumplings and entertained by a television, Douchett simply bides his time. He soon discovers that his wife has been murdered. He’s framed for the incident. And images of his daughter pass by. Questions about who imprisoned him motivate Douchett, along with a need for him to sober up and seek out his daughter.
Those familiar with Chan-wook’s work will see Lee pay homage to the original’s visual eccentricities, including a couple of well-placed prop items that don’t figure into Lee’s vision. Lee and Protosevich’s narrative deviations work for the most part - Lee essentially strips Chan-wook’s more existential qualities for a straight-forward revenge thriller that’s held together by its own eccentricities. From Josh Brolin’s strained but comical displays of masculine bravado to Samuel L. Jackson’s usual bits of hyperactive ghettoisms, Oldboy sees the comic potential in Chan-wook’s effort and responds accordingly. These bits of B-movie aesthetics clash a bit with Elizabeth Olsen’s contributions to the picture, though she really does propel the film’s dramatic qualities with the sort of refrained finesse that made Martha Marcy May Marlene so effective.
There’s a sense of excitement to Lee’s Oldboy, even as I didn’t get the sense that Lee himself is excited about the making of it. Unlike his recent Red Hook Summer, Lee is straightforward with the material. For that, I actually found the picture to be a welcome return to form - it’s more a display of how refined and audacious his stylistic capacities are rather than an effort that overextends his reach.