I'm going to guess that roughly 75 percent of the people that saw Chan-wook Park's 2003 adaptation of the Japanese manga comic OLDBOY and loved it already hate Spike Lee's version based solely on the fact that it exists, sight unseen. If you're in that camp, I'm not talking to you during this review. Continue living in your world of knee-jerk reactions to remakes and let the rest of us judge a film based on its own merits. As for the rest of you who are rightfully curious about what Lee brings to his telling of this truly messed-up revenge story, I'm perfectly willing to respect that fact that you might genuinely dislike the film after having seen it. There's no getting around the fact that Lee's version of OLDBOY has issues and flaws, but I think it's one of the his most visually interesting, and it's great seeing him take chances like this so deep into his career.
The most fascinating aspect of OLDBOY is what Lee and screenwriter Mark Protosevich chose to leave the same and what is changed, because when something is altered it is deeply altered here. Even the length of time ad executive Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) spends in solitary confinement in a prison that looks like a motel room. In the first version, the character as held 15 years; in Lee's version, it's 20. It's not a huge difference, but it's Lee's way of saying "This is not exactly the same; pay attention to the differences." Doucett is not a good man, and there are many suspects on his list of enemies that might want to torment him like this. He finds out by watching a TV in his room that his ex-wife has been killed, he is the prime suspect and his daughter is no lost to him probably forever.
And then he is released, like a caged animal into the wild, as inexplicably as he was snatched up in the first place, and he goes on a hunt to find his captive and his daughter. Along the way, he enlists the help of old friends (Michael Imperioli as Chucky, a friend since private school) and new ones (Elizabeth Olsen as social worker Marie, a woman who is willing to act as as Joe's conduit back into the modern world). Joe has become something of a solitary, primal creature, and both Chucky and Marie work to get their friend's head on straight so he can achieve his goals and clear his name.
The biggest hurdle OLDBOY has to face is that if you know the big moments and twists of the original film, some of the mystery and inherent drama of the story is lost. Joe's show-stopping rip down a hallway full of adversaries armed only with a hammer and 20 years of pent-up rage is here, and it's magnificent. The one place Lee never cuts corners in this film is with its violence; my god, is this movie bloody and beyond gory. The use of blood and guts is done sparingly, but when the time comes, there's really no turning off the faucet.
Perhaps the film's biggest change is in the character of the person that is actually pulling the strings of Joe imprisonment and release, a man known as Adrian (Sharlto Copley). Whether or not you like or hate this version of OLDBOY may rest squarely on what you think of Copley really odd, eccentric portrait of a man who has plotting out the most elaborate revenge fantasy in the history of man. You'd have to be mostly insane to have that kind of patience, and Adrian is well past insane. I found Copley's measured performance to be equal parts terrifying and hilarious, whether it was meant to both or not, I'm still not sure. And Protosevich's revised script gives Adrian more of a backstory into his motivations for what he does to Joe, with losing any of the intrigue and mystery into his background.
Lee brings his strength as a storyteller who isn't afraid to dig a little into his character's psyche in Oldboy, the same way he did with other genre pieces like CLOCKERS, INSIDE MAN, SUMMER OF SAM or 25TH HOUR. But it's clear that the visual experimentation that the psychological aspects of the story allow him to try are what he's having the most fun with. Even if you loathe the film, there's no way you won't be impressed with its look and fractured atmosphere. This is a story told from the perspective of a man who has been broken by another man, and the camera work from director of photography Sean Bobbitt and haunting score by Roque Baños (who also recently scored the EVIL DEAD remake) reflect that mental break.
It's not your job to walk into the remake of a beloved film without thinking of the original favorably, but I find it helps. And the thing that you have to remember is that it's not a contest; there doesn't have to be one that is better than the other. The winner doesn't get a trophy (usually). But one of the key things any remake must do is justify its existence by coming at the material from a new and interesting angle, and Spike Lee and his team without question pass that test, but it isn't the only criteria for it being a great movie or not. There are lapses of judgement and logic in this film that are often questionable and sometimes unforgivable. Samuel L. Jackson's portrayal of the "warden" of Joe's prison isn't nearly as interesting as he thinks it is. And the handling of the story's big reveal is dragged out for so long that it will likely ruin the surprise for those unfamiliar with the material.
Still, I liked what I saw. Nearly all of the performances are fantastic; the film's motif will keep your eyes happy for days; and the story elements are enhanced, reduced or left the same in just the right proportions to keep audiences clear on and entertained by the twisted plot points. As long as you don't have an aversion to exploding heads and hammer-based violence, you should find OLDBOY pretty damn interesting. Hell, there's even a chance you might like it quite a bit.