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Oldboy (2003) vs. Old Boy (2013)

Which one smelt it and which one dealt it? Which one smelt it and which one dealt it?

Stay in your lane, Spike Lee.

Posted: Apr. 21, 2018 3:31 PM

“A man’s got to know his limitations.” Harry Callahan, “Magnum Force” (1973)

It’s hard to state this given Hollywood’s atrocious track record but there are some movies that should be remade. Film is a different medium than prose and ages much more quickly. It’s possible to read a novel or short story from a century or more ago and find it as powerful and captivating as anything published today, while a movie can become almost unwatchable to new viewers less than years later because of changing technical capabilities. The CGI effects in “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” (2001) were pretty cutting edge for their time and now look like utter garbage.

Changing cultural standards can also cripple the appeal of an old motion picture. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” (2015) was a virtual remake of the original “Star Wars” but with a more “woke” attitude toward diversity and a greater emphasis on female empowerment…and most people loved it. And, of course, the less said about racial attitudes in American movies before about 1950 the better.

But while I often think it would be marvelous to see a new version of “The Searchers” (1956), I also cringe at the thought because I doubt anyone in Hollywood today would know how to do it right. This week’s edition of KIMT’s Weekend Remake Throwdown is powerful evidence my suspicion is correct. It’s “Oldboy” (2003) vs. “Old Boy” (2013) in a metaphor for why you don’t let a three-year-old play with your good china.

“Oldboy” is one of those things that separate normal people from geeks. It’s a film from Korea that most of the public has never seen or even heard of but you couldn’t call yourself an America cinephile in 2004 if you didn’t know about it. It’s the story of a man named Dae-su (Min-sik Choi) who gets drunk one evening and finds himself kidnapped and held prisoner for 15 years with only a television for company. He doesn’t know why it’s happened or who is doing it to him and journeys from desperation to suicidal depression to insanity to a terrifying clarity of purpose. Then, with no explanation, he’s set free.

What he looked like when Gene Simmons called about "gimmick infringement."
What he looked like when he got a call from Gene Simmons about "gimmick infringement."

Dae-su is befriended by a young woman named Mi-do (Hye-Jeong Kang) and is eventually confronted by the man responsible for his confinement (Ji-tae Yu), who gives Dae-su only a few days to figure out what’s happened to him and why or Mi-do will be murdered. With only an old friend (Dae-han Ji) to help him because the rest of the world believes Dae-su killed his wife and then vanished, our hero rides a slow boat of revenge over the falls of rage and love.

“Oldboy” is a difficult film to connect with and not only because it’s thoroughly foreign in the emotional rhythms and reactions of its characters. The non-European perspective and reference points in the movie show just how much of human thought and behavior is if not culturally constructed at least heavily influenced by culture. There’s only one truly sympathetic character in the whole tale and she is swamped by the dark and twisted waves of the plot. “Oldboy” is violent, both physically and emotionally, and can be genuinely uncomfortable to watch at times. But the mystery of Dae-su is engrossing and even on repeated viewings, when the edge of that mystery is gone, you can still be captivated by the extended meditation on vengeance as a futile human desire. It’s a masterful piece of cinema but isn’t something for mass audiences interested in mild entertainment.

Which makes you wonder what Spike Lee was thinking when decided to do an American remake. He’s never been a terribly commercial filmmaker and his best work has almost exclusively been about American race relations. What did he think he could do with this black-hearted Asian revenge fantasy and two whiter-than-white stars in Josh Brolin and Elizabeth Olsen? Seriously, you could have cast a jar of mayonnaise and an albino polar bear in the lead roles and they’d have been less white than Brolin and Olsen. Well, having now watched “Old Boy” (2013) I can state for the record that Spike Lee had no frickin’ clue was he doing.

Either a joke about Obamacare or the Trump Dental Plan.  You decide.
Either a joke about Obamacare or the Trump Dental Plan.  You choose.

The outline of the plot is basically the same, with abrasive and stunningly stupid ad man Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) being held prisoner for 20 years and then released to seek his revenge. The execution is entirely different, with Lee proving over and over that he didn’t understand what the original was doing and where his every attempt to change or improve the film is disastrous.

To start with, Lee presents “Old Boy” like it’s some sort of noirish mystery piece. The Korean original clearly leaned into a fantastical atmosphere with a deranged and dysfunctional Dae-su telling his backstory to a suicidal man on a rooftop. There are hallucinations and awkward interactions and an improbably hallway battle between a hammer-wielding Dae-su and a gang of criminal thugs. “Oldboy” was serious but never tries to be taken completely seriously. Lee takes a much more matter-of-fact approach to the story and only highlights the ridiculousness of fundamental aspects of the plot. Lee then exaggerates the affect by taking some parts of the original that tried to explain how things were happening and replacing them with pure chance or god-like omniscience on the part of the villain.

Lee also has to be blamed for Brolin’s lackluster performance. This is an extreme character in an extreme situation and could be played in any one of a thousand different ways, but Brolin spends most of the movie looking and sounding like a guy who got stuck at the airport overnight rather than someone who just escaped two decades of solitary confinement. I don’t think you can blame Brolin because he’s proven himself to be a perfectly acceptable actor, though he’s also a shining repudiation of the myth of meritocracy. I mean, has Brolin played a single part in his entire career that couldn’t have been done just as well or better by a thousand other guys? He’s been acting for over 30 years and has major roles in both 2018’s “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Deadpool 2” but has anyone ever watched something because Brolin was in it? There’s nothing in Brolin’s career to make someone think he could even approach Min-sik Choi’s masterful performance, but he still got the job.

Who hits someone with a shoe?  Honestly!
Who hits someone with a shoe?  Honestly!

In another demonstration of ineptitude, Lee clearly changed some elements of the Korean original to make the story more palatable to a mainstream American audience yet, just as clearly, he didn’t understand the affect those changes would have on the story. Without spoiling too much, because “Oldboy” (2003) really should be viewed as a blank slate, a crucial part of the film is the role men play as the protector of women. Mi-do truly only exists in the original for Dae-su to save. Elizabeth Olsen plays the part in the American version and Lee and screenwriter Mark Protosevich make her a much more well-rounded character with her own backstory and far greater degree of what they now call “agency.” She’s an actual participant in unraveling the mystery. The problem is that literally the whole movie hinges on Dae-su/Doucett needing to protect Mi-do/Marie and when Marie looks like someone who can take care of herself, the central conflict of the film deflates like a tire with 25 nails in it.

"Look, a clue!  Let's get it back to the other kids in the Mystery Machine!"
"Look, a clue!  Let's get this back to the other kids in the Mystery Machine!"

“Old Boy” (2013) is also full of little bits of cinematic incompetence, from the way Lee totally botches the introduction of the film’s bad guy to his markedly inferior hallway fight sequence to giving the villain a female bodyguard who effortlessly kicks Doucett’s butt. The whole “women beating up men” has been a beyond tired cliché since the 1990s and “Old Boy” isn’t some light adventure. Seeing Brolin get manhandled by Pom Kelmentieff feels like something out of an Adam Sandler Netflix comedy. And again, seeing the very talented Sharlto Copley play the American version’s villain as a knockoff Bond bad guy is something you have to blame on Spike Lee. Honestly, “Old Boy” (2013) even screws up the revenge motivation so much that it would have made more sense if everything that happens to Joe Doucett was because his name was randomly picked out of phone book.

Kids, a phone book is where we used to find phone numbers for people. Yes, it was an actual book you would keep by your phone when your phone was something that stayed behind when you left the house.

From Samuel L. Jackson's audition for the latest WWE film: "Viscera, the Lean Years."
From Samuel L. Jackson's audition for the latest WWE film: "Viscera, the Lean Years."

“Oldboy” (2003) trounces its Yankee cousin to win this Throwdown. Looking at “Old Boy” (2013), it’s impossible to guess why they wanted to remake it, how they thought it would be attractive to American viewers, or what they expected to accomplish. So, Hollywood, forget what I wrote about “The Searchers.” Just keep making more movies about comic books, action figures, and cartoons.

Leave “Darkwing Duck” alone, though, or I’ll show up at your house with a cheese grater and a carton of salt.


Oldboy (2003)
Written by Chan-wook Park, Joon-hyung Lim, and Jo-yun Hwang.
Directed by Chan-wook Park.
Starring Min-suk Choi, Ji-tae Yu, Hye-jeong Kang, Dae-han Ji, Dai-su Oh, Byeong-ok Kim, Seung-shin Lee, Jin-seo- Yoon, Tae-kyung Oh, Yeon-Seok Yoo, and Il-han Oo.

Old Boy (2013)
Written by Mark Protosevich.
Directed by Spike Lee.
Starring Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, Sharlto Copley, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Imperioli, Pom Klementieff, James Ransone, Max Casella, Linda Emond, and Elvis Nolasco.

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