“Don’t call it a remake,” warns Charles Webb at Twitch, noting that Spike Lee “asks that audiences consider his Oldboy a ‘reinterpratation’ of the source material…. ‘Many people have sung “My Funny Valentine,” but when Miles Davis plays it, it’s different.’ And Lee’s told Simon Abrams in Esquire that when Josh Brolin approached Park Chan-wook, director of the 2003 original, to seek his blessing, “Park gave it to him, but he said, ‘Please make your own film.’ That was my thinking from the beginning. So when Josh told me that story, I said, ‘Let’s go.'”
Profiling Lee for the New York Times, Logan Hill sets up the reinterpretation: “Josh Brolin plays Joe Doucett, an alcoholic ad man and negligent father who is imprisoned in a small, mysterious room for 20 years for no evident reason. Believing that he was framed for his wife’s murder, and that his daughter was abducted, Joe’s rage ferments until it is distilled into pure blood lust. When Joe is finally uncorked from captivity, he is so monomaniacally bent on vengeance that his unnamed city itself seems to bend to his will.”
Park “gussied up a grim tale of imprisonment, incest, and live-octopus consumption using a squalid exploitation-flick aesthetic that provided his baroque narrative with a visual analogue,” writes Jesse Cataldo at Slant. Lee’s version “is actually a relatively faithful update, one that tones down the formal agitation while dialing up the textual sordidness, tacking on a paltry redemption arc and some whiffs of political commentary. Adding stakes-heightening exposition and fleshing out the character psychology, these attempts to bring the story into clearer focus only end up exaggerating the inherently preposterous properties of this flamboyant yarn.”
Variety‘s Justin Chang: “Even Oldboy virgins caught off-guard by the closing twists may get the sense that they’re not following a story so much as a template, and a creaky one at that, absent the stylistic verve that made Park’s film, gratuitous and self-satisfied as it was, something more than the sum of its contrivances. With the exception of one early sight gag embedded in Sharon Seymour’s otherwise nondescript production design, Lee’s directorial signature here could scarcely feel less pronounced, his attention less engaged. This time, it’s impersonal.”
“What, exactly, drew Lee to an Oldboy remake?” wonder the Chicago Tribune‘s Michael Phillips. “You can’t really tell from watching the film. It’s a labyrinthine mystery that doesn’t seem to exist on planet Earth; it’s hermetic, deliberately artificial, focused on its own fancy misfortunes and old scores, waiting for settlement…. The revenge in Oldboy is neither sweet nor sour; it’s just drab.”
“Lee has few peers when it comes to stirring empathy for troubled characters wandering a city,” writes Voice film editor Alan Scherstuhl, adding that “in an early sequence here, Brolin’s drunk prick of a broker stumbles through the drizzle in a past-midnight Chinatown while Lee’s camera bobs above his umbrella, dipping and rising like the unsettled liquor inside him. It’s a perfect evocation of being adrift, a reminder that, at Lee’s best, all his dazzling technique is marshaled in the service of getting us to feel along with the people onscreen.”
Nigel M. Smith talks with Elizabeth Olsen for Indiewire and, at Film.com, David Ehrlich has a good long talk with screenwriter Mark Protosevich, who’s “been attached to the Oldboy remake for years, sticking through it as the project was passed between some of Hollywood’s biggest names, and holding tight to his personal reinterpretation regardless as to which legendary director was slated to helm the movie.” Diva Vélez interviews him, too, for Twitch.
Updates: “A lot of remakes use their source material as a crutch,” writes David Ehrlich at Film.com, “but Lee’s film commits the far greater sin of transforming the original’s greatest strengths into his movie’s most glaring weaknesses. A slumming Spike Lee is still better than most directors at the top of their game, but Oldboy isn’t just Lee’s worst movie, it’s practically his Wicker Man.”
“Fans expecting an American version to water it down will find that, while Lee leaves some of Park’s more memorable outrages behind, he and screenwriter Mark Protosevich find one or two ways to up the taboo-testing ante, small surprises that retain the tale’s edge without pushing into the realm of exploitation,” writes John DeFore in the Hollywood Reporter. “Unlike his predecessor, who took his character to some truly terrifying places, Brolin remains recognizably human (albeit desperate, fierce and scarred) throughout the story. The performance suits Lee and Protosevich’s vision well—particularly in the end, a resolution which will likely strike many of the first film’s partisans as too gentle, but achieves an impressive bleak irony without betraying the story’s complicated emotional motivations.”
Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn: “Among its eccentric asides, Lee’s Oldboy offers none greater than Samuel L. Jackson, the scowling loudmouth hired to keep Joe in captivity who later faces the freed man’s fury—and naturally runs his mouth as only Jackson can… Jackson’s ridiculous presence gives Oldboy an elevated weirdness that’s out of sync with some of the more traditional developments, but it’s supremely enjoyable to watch Lee’s sensibilities invade an otherwise familiar plot. In fact, when Oldboy gets serious, it loses the grindhouse edge that makes it so confidently fierce.”
There are “two standout fight sequences,” notes Charlie Schmidlin at the Playlist, “one that fans of the original are expecting, and one entirely new brawl that is actually more effectively brutal. Not to say that the former hallway fight is mishandled—its one-take, two-level madness is a feat of choreography (if somewhat static) and technical skill—but the latter perfectly stresses Lee’s tone of sick humor and bone-crunching immediacy that he often fails to achieve elsewhere.” All in all, Oldboy is “one of the most frustratingly accomplished disappointments this year.”
Updates, 11/27: The New York Times‘ A.O. Scott finds Lee’s Oldboy “often puzzling but rarely lifeless… Some of the fight scenes are staged with the gaudy flair of musical dance numbers, and at times they approach the grisly, brightly hued surrealism that is Mr. Park’s specialty.” Still, “you may find yourself swerving between bafflement and mild astonishment, wondering how a movie that works so hard to generate intensity and surprise can feel so routine and bereft of genuine imagination.”
In the Nashville Scene, David Fear argues that “if we have to suffer through a new Oldboy, let it be one starring Josh Brolin and directed by Spike Lee. The former, an actor blessed with Cro-Mag handsomeness and a college-wrestler’s build, is the kind of guy you could believe as both a broken man and someone with a single-minded desire to rip people apart. (Bruised masculinity becomes him.) The second remains one of the most exciting, if erratic, American filmmakers of the past two decades. We are in good hands here, even if said hands are holding a bloodied blunt instrument, poised to strike our skulls.”
“Only an Oldboy neophyte would get absorbed in this rehash,” writes Matt Singer at the Dissolve, “but only an Oldboy expert would understand the point of the random shot of a live octopus in a Chinese restaurant. In other words, this is a very confused movie, designed for an audience that doesn’t exist.”
Salon‘s Andrew O’Hehir is also a bit confused as to “whom this movie’s supposed to be for. To be clear, I fully support Lee’s ongoing campaign to push into mainstream film (i.e., movies white people will see), and I generally liked both 25th Hour and Inside Man. This one has its technical virtues, but it’s frankly kind of a muddle, and may have been doomed from the outset.”
For Matt Zoller Seitz, writing at RogerEbert.com, Lee’s Oldboy is “not a masterpiece by any stretch, but a lively commercial genre picture with a hypnotic, obsessive quality, and an utter indifference to being liked, much less approved of.”
As to why Lee’s made this “decent but unmemorable remake,” New York‘s David Edelstein suggests that “maybe this is a big F.U. to Quentin Tarantino, with whom Lee has traded nasty barbs over Tarantino’s use of African-Americans in Jackie Brown and Django Unchained. In Oldboy, Lee stages hand-to-hand fights between Joe and hordes of bad guys in fluid, elegant single takes—an answer to Tarantino’s overblown production numbers in his revenge movie, Kill Bill. Plus, Tarantino headed the jury in Cannes that gave Oldboy the Grand Prix. So Lee could grab the rights to a favorite Tarantino flick, cast Tarantino favorite Samuel L. Jackson in a pivotal role, and savor his power. Or maybe he just needed the money.”
The AV Club‘s A.A. Dowd suggests that “newcomers to this tale of ancient grudges and desperate degenerates [will] likely have a fine time—though perhaps they’d be best off just renting Park’s version instead.”
Matt Prigge, writing for Metro, finds that this Oldboy “is told with a lurid, funny, crazy tone that makes it probably edgier, if superficially, than the movie it’s copying.”
In the opposite corner, Stephanie Zacharek in the Voice: “Lee’s Oldboy is drab and humorless, devoid of the stylistic curlicues that can get you through even a bad Spike Lee film.”
“Give credit to Lee for staying fresh, even if this feels like slumming,” advises Joshua Rothkopf in Time Out New York.
“There are considerable pleasures in watching Lee work in B-movie mode, but they can’t distract from the fact that his remake’s determined darkness doesn’t add up to all that much,” writes Tim Grierson for Screen.
Flavorwire‘s Jason Bailey gives us fair warning: he’s just going to assume you’ve seen the original and he’ll not worry about spoilers.
Updates, 11/30: “Repellent and deeply stupid, Park Chan-Wook’s decade-old revenge thriller Oldboy is too high on its own bad-boy attitude to be genuinely shocking, and too mean-spirited and bullying toward its audience to be truly enjoyable,” argues Max Nelson at Reverse Shot. “Eruptions of bottled-up rage and spontaneous acts of violence might be among Lee’s specialties, but they tend to be inspired by a kind of righteous anger directed at or generated by social structures, institutions, and ideologies. That isn’t to say that there’s no space in Lee’s body of work for conflicts between individuals, just that his violence is usually motivated by forces wider and deeper than crude payback or personal offense. Accordingly, Lee does make occasional stabs at reframing the original Oldboy’s constant, near-senseless abuse in terms of class and (especially) race—although he also understands how little the movie’s premise can stretch beyond its own self-imposed limits.”
The New Yorker‘s Richard Brody argues that the new one’s “better than the original; Lee’s film is clearer, stranger, and more deeply rooted in a vision of life. Lee bends Oldboy into a societal X-ray, an image that doesn’t resemble anything at first, but, when viewed correctly, reveals essential workings and troubles.”
Lee’s Oldboy “is both original and uncompromising, I’ll give it that—it just doesn’t happen to be any good,” finds Slate‘s Dana Stevens. And in a “Spoiler Special,” she talks it over with Aisha Harris.
“Oldboy is lively but numb,” writes Tom Shone in the Guardian, “checked out, as if Lee were directing it following a period of intense convalescence. In a way, he has. It’s been a tough few years for the filmmaker, during which he has struggled to get films made, while his two most recent movies—Miracle at St Anna (2008) and Red Hook Summer (2012)—have struggled to break even. Perhaps the best way of looking at Oldboy is as a piece of placeholder cinema, like Martin Scorsese’s After Hours: a chance for the filmmaker, after a period of attrition, to get a small hit under his belt, a workout to show off his camera angles and get the blood flowing again.”
Similarly, Time‘s Richard Corliss, who suggests that “Lee’s impulse here is less Why remake Chan’s film (whose title hints at its climactic flashback twists) than Why not? Like Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, a bloated Americanizing of the Hong Kong cop movie Infernal Affairs, the Lee Oldboy will startle newbies with its story ingenuities and morbid revelations, while leaving connoisseurs of the source film wondering why Hollywood couldn’t have left great enough alone.”
Bilge Ebiri prefers the original, which “I love, love, love,” but still finds five things he likes about the new Oldboy.
“Everything is wrong with Lee’s version,” finds Wesley Morris at Grantland. “It’s karaoke.”
Kelly Vance in the East Bay Express: “While K-dazed fan boys were moaning about Lee’s trespassing, ambitious filmmaker Park was making his English-language debut in Stoker, a more satisfying and much better written oddball melodrama than either one of the Oldboys.”
“[A]re we watching a grim, conventional drama or a movie that can’t take its lunatic plot seriously?” wonders Robert Horton in the Seattle Weekly. “Lee hasn’t solved that problem.” At Gay City News, Steve Erickson finds the film “fascinatingly conflicted.” More interviews with Lee: R. Kurt Osenlund (Slant) and Jennifer Vineyard (Vulture).
Updates, 12/6: “A good American adaptation… might have been feasible,” suggests the Telegraph‘s Tim Robey. “Alas, Lee has wrought the opposite—a garish reproduction that never pretends to know who it’s for.”
Nigel Andrews in the Financial Times: “Lee and his cameraman film from the floor, the ceiling, the drainpipes: anywhere to lend novelty, or fresh perspective, to tired, trashy material.”
Updates, 12/23: In the Nation, Stuart Klawans wonders “what can anyone gain from watching Oldboy, beyond some visceral excitement? Part of the answer comes from Protosevich, whose script changes the ending of Park’s film to bring this Oldboy to a more logical and also more punitive conclusion…. Yet if the wish fulfillment of Oldboy is to be taken as social criticism, I have to say that the target is as all-purpose as the setting.”
“Taken as stylistic exercise,” Oldboy “may be the most impressive movie of its kind to hit Chicago since Brian DePalma’s Passion,” writes Ben Sachs in the Reader. “Regardless of whether Lee succeeds here as a storyteller, he communicates such pleasure in the filmmaking process that you might appreciate it for the showmanship alone.”
“Lee has made a career of impassioned human dramas flavored with strident sociopolitical critiques,” writes Ashley Clarke for Sight & Sound, “but in Oldboy the sound and the fury is not his own; contrast this with the fierce barbs fired at US domestic policy in the director’s last Hollywood-for-hire job, Inside Man. Here, Lee is hemmed in by the overdetermined narrative constraints of the source text; Park combated this with a combination of stylistic brio and the berserk intensity of his performers, but Lee seems unable to distinguish his version beyond the level of aesthetic competence. At its anonymous worst, watching Oldboy feels like spying on an automated video-game demo, with an avatar drifting listlessly from level to level.”
Jon Busch, though, writing for the Rumpus, approves: “Maybe Lee was smart enough to realize that no matter how true he stayed to the original, we fans would never be satisfied. Why should he make Oldboy for us? We’ve already seen it. He could never recreate the thrill of our first viewing. So instead he created a new thrill, for a new, American audience.”