Review: Spike Lee’s ‘Oldboy’ Is A Disappointing Rehash

Review: Spike Lee’s 'Oldboy' Is A Disappointing Rehash

I was a big fan of Chan-wook Park’s “Oldboy” when I was younger, but

it’s been a while since I’ve seen it. I’m also not one to be dismissive

of remakes (I mean, let’s be honest, most movies are remakes

in some capacity) and was hopeful when an auteur like Spike Lee was

announced to direct the project. In the original, a man is held captive for

15 years (Lee extends it to 20) without knowing why, only to be released

again without explanation. Like any curious individual would do, he tries

to unravel the mystery, but only partly realizes that someone is pulling

the strings every step of the way. Josh Brolin plays the man, named Joe

Doucette in this version and Oh Dae-su in the original.

“Oldboy” has become a bit of a cult item since its release, and in the US

it’s one of the most well known modern South Korean movies. Steven

Spielberg and Will Smith were even going to do a remake at one point,

but that fell through. Even with its popularity, I would have to assume a

general American audience isn’t familiar with the original movie, and Lee’s

film goes into some pretty dark territory for such a high-profile release. It

doesn’t back down, but it’s also missing something that made the original

hit so hard.

There are some disturbing twists that made Park’s film so memorable

for a lot of people, and they remain intact here, but with a few, mostly

inconsequential, tweaks I won’t spoil. There’s also a fight scene that scrolls

down a hallway while the protagonist takes on multiple attackers with a

hammer that became famous and the remake seems to want to top it by

letting it take place on more than one floor. The scene happens when

Brolin returns to the compound where he was imprisoned and tries to

get answers. In this movie, the cut that leads directly to the storied fight

scene occurs in a way that makes it seem distractingly separate from the

action that precedes it. It’s as if Lee was making the movie, knew he had to

include the scene, but neglected any cohesiveness. In the movie, Brolin is

escaping the compound when it happens, so its existence isn’t implausible.

It’s just that the abrupt way the film moves into the scene makes it feel like

the character is advancing to a new level in a game like Tekken or Mortal

Kombat. It’s just awkward.

Lee and his DP, Steve McQueen collaborator Sean Bobbitt, shot the film in

35mm, 16mm and apparently even Super 8 formats, which is nice to know

in this day and age. It gives the film a gritty look when necessary and it has

a more textured feel than most mainstream releases lately. This updated

version also doesn’t skimp on brutal violence and generally disturbing

content, but it doesn’t hit home like it did in Park’s original. This could be

because I already knew what to expect, but I also feel like this is a bit like

the CliffsNotes version of this material. We don’t spend anytime developing

anything and each plot point feels like another bullet on a checklist. Brolin

has mentioned he prefers the longer, unreleased cut that Lee shot, and

I’d be interested to see if it adds anything to the characters. Of course, the

people involved with the making of a film always seem to prefer the cut of

the movie we don’t end up seeing, so I’m often inclined to think it’s just an

easy way for them to defend against any negative criticism.

Brolin is actually quite good here, making it clear he was the right choice

for the role, but he feels underserved by the script. I’ll admit that for the

first 30 minutes or so, I thought this was going to be better than Park’s

movie, but the second half feels surprisingly by-the-numbers for such dark

material; if mostly due to its workmanlike execution. Michael Imperioli

and James Ranson have almost nothing to do as supporting characters

who help Brolin when he’s released from captivity and Elizabeth Olsen

gets a mostly reactionary role as his “love interest.” Samuel L. Jackson

and Sharlto Copley are the main antagonists and while Jackson does his

usual schtick, Copley pushes things into cartoon territory. In fact, Jackson

and Copley both physically resemble what bosses in a manga-inspired,

vaguely futuristic video game might look like.

My, admittedly predictable, advice would be to just seek out Park’s

movie if you haven’t seen it. I also don’t think this update is entirely

worthless though. It’s certainly not boring, and there’s some great technical

filmmaking (mostly in the first half) and Lee makes sure to include his

signature double-dolly shot, here making it look as if Brolin is gliding

through the city streets. The disappointment is that the movie ultimately

feels like a rehash, and that’s the primary thing a remake should avoid. A

fairly stylish rehash, but that doesn’t change the fundamental problem.

Grade: C

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Sam D.

I give it a freakin A! Brolin’s acting was Impressive.. the fights where awesome. I see why so much negative publicity since everyone is comparing it with the previous pic. Didn’t watch the old one, so when i watched this one, it was badass… must of watched it like 3 times till now.

Dave's Deluxe

Well, I finally watched it this afternoon on a borrowed Blu-Ray. I will agree with the above rating.

THE GOOD: Fight scenes are nicely choreographed and convincingly brutal. Enjoyed Spike's take on the "Hallway fight", although there seemed to be a bit of forgivable digital enhancement. Cinematography excellent: over-saturated popping color, high contrast and film grain added gritty feel. Story stays mostly faithful to original source material (you know what I mean if you've seen it.)

THE BAD: All acting feels contrived and unrehearsed, occasionally wooden and melodramatic, bordering on soapy across the board. Brolin's Big Reveal performance at the end feels particularly false. Direction seems unable to fully realize the dynamics of widescreen format.

THE UGLY: Many moments of unintentional acting hilarity, like Brolin stuffing his face full of dumplings in the restaurant with a "Eureka!" look and the expression on (no spoiler)'s face when he's getting choked to death ("You called her a whore!").

Not a lot of folks will see this "review"; if you find it (without me sending you a link) and you know me, tell me and I'll buy you a drink! Cheers all.

WELP, back to work! These Fed-Ex packages won't deliver themselves…….


"In fact, Jackson and Copley both physically resemble what bosses in a manga-inspired, vaguely futuristic video game might look like."

Maybe that's because the original film WAS based on a manga. It's sloppy to review a movie and not cite the original source which was a comic book, NOT the South Korean film.


The problem is, most Americans DO NOT WANT TO SEE THE ORIGINAL.

If they had wanted to see the original, they would have had ten years to do so. Not many took advantage of the opportunity.

Just like Rec (Quarantine), Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Let Me In, The Experiment… a certain fan segment becomes attached to the original and nothing else will ever do.

Others walk in with low or "no" expectations or prejudices and enjoy the show.

It's all up to you whether or not you're gonna have a good day.


White people's critique of Anything Black SHOULD BE DISMISSED!

This writer sounds like a whinny A$$ fragile little boy.

If I were you, I wouldn't put any credence in the above written trash.

Mr. Marin

I had only heard of the original when I heard that Spike would helm its "reinterpretation". I checked out the original and thought it was OK. Definitely wasn't life changing as some make it seem. Maybe I'm just not that into foreign films, maybe this version was best suited for me. Saw this version at the premiere and had fun and thought it was pretty good. However, I am very aware that Film District interfered and made their own force edits. Being a whole-hearted supporter of Spike, this disappointed me and made me wonder if I had in fact watched a film of his. Again, I liked it but I know had Spike been a bit more hands on with it that it could probably be a better film.


Well. here is the link to a Spike Lee produced written and directed original film. (sorry S&A wont allow links) For those of you complaining lets all support. It ends today so hurry.


(In my elderly man voice) I remember back when Spike was a relevant filmmaker, making enduring and important films. Now: a remake of Oldboy? Really? And it's mediocre at best? Spike, Spike, we hardly knew ye…


I wondered where the dolly shot would be.

Novel Idea

Here's a novel idea. Why not stop with the remakes and start writing your own original stuff. Every time a legitimate filmmaker (Spike Lee, for example) makes a remake, it's like them announcing that they are no longer creative enough to keep people interested. Welcome to Hollywood, land of the repeat, home of the generic. Give us two hours and we'll give you junk!


Consider the source… "I was a big fan of Chan-wook Park's "Oldboy" when I was younger" ~ DAN SIMOLKE

Okay, that's Dan's point of reference. But I believe it was Tambay who said most have not seen the original. And see, I am prone to believe that. I had never seen the film ( I watch hundreds every years) but about 2 years ago it received a little press (don't ask me why) here at S&A. Well, being that I am always looking for movies I've not seen, yet others are raving about, I ordered a copy from my old Blockbuster account (they'd send them through the mail). Now I find myself sitting with Ms. Other Song. I mean, I wouldn't necessarily say the movie sucked… but minus a few shocking moments, it was no big deal. In fact, I wouldn't recommend it to anyone I know. But it's safe to say there are those who enjoy this genre (wackey manga-inspired over-the-top mess), I just don't know any. And, I have to say it, I could not relate to the "characters". Take that as you will.

But the following caught my eye –> " It's certainly not boring, and there's some great technical filmmaking (mostly in the first half)… The disappointment is that the movie ultimately feels like a rehash."

Rehash? To whom? And, is that necessarily a bad thing?

Now here's where I'm at. Spike Lee & Samual Jackson & Brolin & Not Boring = I'm all in! Listen, I am not a film student nor do I watch movies with a pen and paper in my hand (jotting down technical flaws, drab camerawork, etc), I go to movies to be entertained. I do not believe this film will let me down.


Great and fair-minded review, which I totally agree with. Saw a matinee here in NYC Thanksgiving Day. Every point you wrote hit me the exact same way; "workmanlike execution" is what I saw in the first five minutes which made me go 'uh-oh." This ain't Spike Lee, with this forced, stilted character setup.

The prison room scenes and sequences worked for sure but the relationships were "weak" even for this thriller genre. Like it just had to plot away with stock characters, and drab camerawork. The cast could only hold up the story so much; Brolin did his usual fully-committed work.

Truly a disappointment. I'll be seeing it again for a film club (maybe revisit the original in between) so I'll seek more depth (aka positives) the next go round.

As for my fellow commenters: Spike ain't the first director to do his best with a studio interfering or re-cutting his/her work. He knew the deal getting in there, partially as a hired hand. That's why director's/ Bluray versions exist. Sorry but that's non-independent business – unless a Weinstein is involved.

other song

The original sucked anyway so I'm not surprised. In fact, I'm more interested to see this than rewatch the Korean original


I know for a fact that the studio took the film away from Spike to re-edit it themselves. I'm acquaintances with someone whom works for the production company. So the failure of this film can't be blamed entirely on Spike, although we all know it will.

Tom Haverford

"In this movie, the cut that leads directly to the storied fight scene occurs in a way that makes it seem distractingly separate from the action that precedes it. It’s as if Lee was making the movie, knew he had to include the scene, but neglected any cohesiveness."

Lee has actually publicly complained that the studio interfered in this film, and especially in the editing of that scene. I have to wonder if it flows any better in the director's cut.


Can't wait to see it, Spike is brillant and so is his work.

Da'Shade Moonbeam

I don't agree, I give it an A. I am a fight choreographer, and a super fan of the original Oldboy. I think Spike knew he had to create a film that would be fresh to those that covet the original and pay homage to it all in the same story line. I don't think it was a disappointment at all, and your review is spot on in numerous areas. I personally hoped he'd do exactly what he did, for if I wanted to see the original Oldboy, then I would watch the original. I'm glad he didn't just do a cookie cutter version of the original movie with american actors. I feel where you are coming from though, we just have differing opinions. Going to see it again today!

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