American adaptions of foreign films have an important task to accomplish: they must seamlessly adapt themes of another culture for an American audience. That task is made harder when it is both a cult film and part of a larger thematic trilogy. A cult director himself, Spike Lee has decided to take on the challenge by adapting the Chan Wook Park’s Oldboy. The film follows Joseph Ducett (Josh Brolin), a businessman who seeks vengeance after being imprisoned for twenty years. With the help of an aid worker (Elizabeth Olson), he attempts to solve the mystery of his imprisonment and reconnect with his daughter Mia. Soon, he becomes a pawn by Adrian Pryce (Sharlto Copley), the man who ordered Ducett’s imprisonment, in a personal act for vengeance. On its own, Lee’s film has a decent edge brought down by bad pacing and unsympathetic characters. As an American adaption, the film completely removes the emotional power that made the first film so enticing. Instead of leaving the film questioning human morality, we leave disgusted.
Being a fan of the original film, I understand the difficulty trying not to compare Lee’s film to the Korean counterpart. However, sometimes comparison is necessary to analyze how the interpretation effects the adaptation overall. In Park’s film, audiences develop sympathy for Dae-Su Oh, the imprisoned main character, justifying his journey for vengeance. Conversely, Lee’s adaptation is devoid of this sympathy. The character of Ducett is slovenly, misogynistic, and cruel. As a result, audiences view his imprisonment as justified and cannot rationalize following Ducett on his path of vengeance.
The film picks up pace somewhat after the initial bump. Lee explores the interesting themes concerning the power of technology and television. In addition to Google and Shazaam exposing plot points in the film, television informs Ducett’s interpersonal relationships, the prominent example being Ducett’s relationship with his daughter Mia. Ducett builds that relationship through the television in the prison cell. As he creates a love for his daughter, the postmodern connection also influences Ducett’s inability to connect to others following his release. Despite these themes, Lee does little to flesh them out. Other opportunities he misses are reducing potentially rich characters into stereotypes—Sam Jackson being the worst offender—and pacing that spends too much time on Ducett’s backstory and less on the actual mystery. These oversights remove the emotional power from the film, adding nothing to the rich nuance of the original.
Pryce’s backstory, arguably a crucial component for discussing the cyclical nature of vengeance, provides the nail for the film’s coffin. Throughout the film, Lee offers the setup for exposing the false binary surrounding him and Ducett, blurring the roles for antagonist and protagonist. Sadly, this blurring never takes place. The backstory, which deals with sexual assault, paints Pryce as the stereotype of dangerous man with homoerotic undertones. Ultimately Pryce is denied his full revenge, despite having succeeded in turning Ducett into a pawn. His plan showcased both Ducett’s flaws and how easy it can be to fall into the cycle of vengeance. In turn, this plan would make audiences uncomfortable by forcing them to question the morality of man.
Sadly, the film renders the plan irrelevant by offering Ducett a chance for redemption. Though his redemption includes self-exile from society, Ducett cements his role as the film’s protagonist. Within a few moments, the film reduced itself to nothing more than poorly timed Sam Jackson one liners. Furthermore, the gore portrayed in the film, an element carrying stylistic significance in the original, becomes unnecessary. Gore without context doesn’t leave audiences questioning human morality. They are just nauseated.
Audiences new to Oldboy will enjoy the film more than fans of the original. Just don’t expect anything new in this installment to the increasingly banal revenge fantasy genre of film.