As reported in Variety earlier today, Spike Lee has officially signed on to direct the long-gestating U.S. remake of the 2003 South Korean revenge thriller, Oldboy. Frankly, there’s no reason to remake the near-perfect original, but since U.S. studios completely lack originality and will probably make this someday, let’s discuss this attempt a bit.
The original film was based on a lengthy Japanese manga series but diverged enough from its source material and had such a strong directorial voice that it eclipsed its origin, winning fans around the world for both director Chan-wook Park and star Min-sik Choi, and to a lesser extent co-star Ji-tae Yu. Its premise was simple and yet so twisted in its presentation that it easily became one of the most memorable films of the decade. That plot: an average businessman is kidnapped and imprisoned for 15 years, only to be released and tasked with finding his mysterious captor in five days. His bloody search for who imprisoned him and why leads him through the seedy underbelly of Seoul as well as his own past, ending with a sickening and unforgettable twist. And yet, it’s much more than the plot, as its direction, set design, cinematography, and score set it well above a run-of-the-mill revenge movie, heralding a new benchmark for Korean film.
Seemingly within a year of its debut, word began circulating that Justin Lin (Fast Five) was attached to direct a U.S. remake. That word was mostly mocked by fanboys upset with the choice of a director seemingly well out of his depth with this thorny material. Eventually that version died, only to resurface a couple years back with the surprising attachment of mainstream masters Steven Spielberg and Will Smith. Again, not at all well received by fans of the original or even fans of the U.S. talent, especially when Smith immediately began assuring his concerned constituents that the famous twist would not be present.
Which brings us to today, and a well-regarded and yet odd directorial choice. Lee hasn’t made a scripted feature in three years, and hasn’t made a critically or commercially significant film in many more years. After a strong start with a stable of films bearing his unique creative stamp, he proved he could toe the line as a director for hire on the successful Inside Man back in 2006, and yet the end result left little evidence of his touch. His last dramatic gig, Miracle at St. Anna, garnered poor critical reception and barely any box office. Lately he’s been solely focused on documentaries.
So what would he bring to this film? Does he still have juice? I consider myself a fan, but I’m not at all intrigued by this proposition. He’s a director for hire again, so the end result is likely to live or die by Mark Protosevich’s script rather than anything special Lee could bring to the table. If it was to be written and directed by Lee 20 years ago, I’d be first in line, but the director-only Lee of 2011 is going to have to dig to add any unique flavor to this rehash. Ultimately, I suspect this incarnation of the project will quietly go the way of the last two, and we can have this conversation again in a couple of years when the next sucker signs on.