(Tons of spoilers for both Oldboy flicks. Don’t say I didn’t warn ya.)
I REMEMBER WHEN TWILIGHT: NEW MOON CAME OUT IN THEATERS. My wife is a bit of a fan, so we went on a date to see it.
The big buildup in the film is for the introduction of the Volturi, the powerful, super, ultra-badass scary group of vampires that are sort of their world’s royal family/mafioso overlords. You wait the whole movie to see them, the tension building. And then … it’s like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, if the titular homosexuals actually didn’t know how to dress. The Volturi aren’t scary, intimidating, nothing. Really, they’re laughable, especially considering the little girl from War of the Worlds comes off as the only hardcore killer in the room.
Sharlto Copley is the Volturi of Spike Lee’s 2013 Oldboy remake. You watch almost two hours of interpersonal terror, murder, revenge and more, only to be served up Copley’s Adrian, a whining, ineffectual freak with daddy issues. In the 2003 original, Ji-Tae Yu brings a restrained, insane sadness to the role of the villain, Wu-Jin Lee. His confrontation with the main character, Dae-su Oh (an Oscar-worthy performance by Min-sik Choi) is the cherry on top of the disturbing, darkly hilarious cake that was the original film.
But Copley’s Adrian is … a caricature. Where Yu’s Wu-Jin Lee is truly heartfelt and grief-stricken (and undeniably twisted), you’re practically waiting for Copley to grow horns and a tail during his confrontation of Brolin’s vengeance-seeking Joe. Joe’s reaction to the Big Reveal (I won’t spoil it for potential viewers of either film) brought to mind Darth Vader’s operatic “Noooooooooooooooo!” at the end of Episode III. Just awful.
THE NEW OLDBOY HAS SOME THINGS GOING FOR IT. The dark secret is changed just a wee bit and it works. In the original, the main love interest is a counter girl at a restaurant and the connection, at least initially, feels a bit forced. Here, the love interest (played ably by the criminally under-used Elizabeth Olsen, who has shown she is capable of so much more) is a social worker who initially believes Joe might be a homeless, mentally disturbed man. The connection made between Olsen’s Marie and Brolin’s Joe is made smoother by this alteration.
But Spike Lee never manages to find the delicate tonal balance of Korean Chan-wook Park’s original. Park manages to infuse some black humor into the thick, unrelenting darkness of the Oldboy world. That really saves Oldboy from becoming a grim, unwatchable sadfest like Nicholas Cage’s 8MM, and that dark humor is the bow on the present at the end of the original.
And in key spots, Lee’s version just falls short. When Joe finds the place he has been held for decades, he arms himself with hammer, finds the man responsible for his time in solitary, then fights his way out. Spike sort of half-asses an ode to Far East martial arts flicks with the fight scene. It’s got the dim-witted villains blowing the attack in some of the worst fight choreography ever, as well as a Josh Brolin that is so stiff that the effect is comical in a way it’s not meant to be.
In Park’s original, when Dae-su fights his way out, it isn’t against 10 or so guys in a big, open garage. When the elevator door opens, Dae-su finds a narrow hallway full of armed thugs. The fight is brutal on a physical level, one man hammering his way through a tight space full of hired brutes trying to kill him. On the metaphorical level, this is the price of vengeance. Vengeance is not easy, it is not clean, it is not glamorous. It hurts, it screams, it bleeds. Vengeance demands all and offers little in return.
That is where Park’s 2003 Oldboy succeeds, finding that darkness, that hopelessness, and soaking in it, running toward it, plunging into its depths. And that is where Lee’s 2013 Oldboy fails, a movie that skirts across the void, trying to avoid the black depths that lie below.