Oldboy tells the story of a man who is kidnapped and imprisoned for 20 years for seemingly no reason. One day, he is suddenly released, again with no explanation, only to find that he has five days to discover whom his captor is or his daughter will be killed. I heard some people saying this remake was unwarranted, since the original already-considered-to-be-a-classic South Korean version was released a mere ten years ago. I wasn’t among that camp; I went in excited to see Spike Lee’s take on a disturbing, harrowing, and deeply profound revenge story.
For those of you who have seen the South Korean original, it does, indeed, follow the same overall narrative arc. There were some rumors that this version doesn’t include the craziness at the end, but it does. You know what I’m talking about. It’s still there. And fans of the original will appreciate subtle homages to the original film. At a Chinese restaurant, an octopus is attached to the inside of an aquarium tank, squirming about. The woman selling tchotchkes in the beginning wears a pair of angel wings. There are more little references to the original film, which are inherently spoilers, but you’ll catch them when you get to them.
Most noticeably, there are a million small changes from the original throughout. Joe is imprisoned for 20 years instead of 15. Maria is a volunteer nurse instead of a waitress. Adrian Price’s henchman is a henchwoman. It seems like every tiny detail about the story has been changed from the original, while still keeping it undeniably Oldboy. And most critically, the story is brought into the present day, so the shock of being completely isolated from society is even greater, what with the advent of smartphones and the Internet. Having the film set in 2013 is initially a cool change—in a brief moment of comedy, Joe is confused by the simplicity of Google. But with all the world’s information a few clicks away, a number of plot holes and downright stupid flaws in logic arise. The movie also features the most blatant product placement I’ve seen in a long, long time. Holy shit. It took me out of the experience completely.
So those minor changes are… it. Almost everything else is nearly identical to the original film. It’s almost as if Spike Lee wanted to change as many tiny details as possible to make it his own creative work. It’s like he’s saying, “Hey, look at this! It’s different! See?” but without making any real changes to the story. A perfect example is the iconic hammer fight scene. Don’t worry, it’s still fucking awesome—and still one continuous take—but halfway through, Joe climbs down a level to fight the rest of his enemies. It doesn’t change the fight in any way, other than differentiating it from the original for the sake of differentiating it from the original. That’s what most of Oldboy feels like—being different for the sake of being different, but without being different at all. All the tiny little changes don’t amount to anything meaningful, so they’re hard to justify.
We run into a big problem, however, when one very key element of the story is changed: the antagonist’s motivation for imprisoning Joe. Adrian Price (played by Sharlto Copley, who really does do his best) is too much a villain. He’s too far gone. In the original film, the antagonist, Woo-jin, initially seems like this faceless, immoral entity that does an unspeakably terrible thing to another person for seemingly no reason. But as the audience learns more about his backstory, we start to see Woo-jin in a different light—still bad, but we begin to understand that him and the Dae-su aren’t that different. They both had wrongs done to them, terrible wrongs, and both went to try to take revenge. And the reason for the antagonist’s vengeance is painful and believable. Woo-jin takes revenge because revenge is rightfully his to take.
In this version, however, Adrian Price’s motivation is—for lack of a better phrase—really, really fucked up. So fucked up we don’t resonate with him like we should. He becomes this cartoonish villain, evil for the sake of being evil, so past the point of having any moral center. Even at the climax, when all is revealed, we still see Price as this unredeemable monster, someone beyond any hope of redemption, let alone the audience’s sympathies.
But what’s most disappointing is that it just isn’t thought provoking, like the original film. What makes the original such a fantastic movie is that on the surface it’s a kick-ass revenge movie, but it also delves into the nature of revenge and the human heart—what we do for revenge, why we do it, what it does to us as human beings. And this level of profundity is what makes the film’s climax so harrowing. Here, though, the film spends too much time on Joe’s actual imprisonment and not enough time following his path to vengeance. Adrian as a villain is too cartoonish and is too evil for us to sympathize with him as a person. All the building blocks are there, but it just doesn’t add up to something really meaningful the way the South Korean version does.
Oldboy never has the guts to stand up and be its own thing. It desperately wants to distance itself from its source material by changing seemingly every small detail about the narrative, but it never fully commits to being its own work. And the few big changes that are made take away more than they add. Watch the original.