This write-off on the film, figurative and literal, upsets me not just in principle, but in specific to the merits of the finished work. Let me clearly state upfront that Park's adaptation of the otherwise lesser-known late '90's graphic novel is still the better film: its changes to the manga's storyline, its fevered pace of pursuit, its operatic levels of tragedy...as Roger Ebert wrote in his four-star review, "OLDBOY is a powerful film not because of what it depicts, but because of the depths of the human heart which it strips bare." However, and get your torches and pitchforks ready, I feel this new reinterpretation credited to screenwriter Mark Protosevich is the more interesting tale, even though it does not succeed as well as its predecessor. The majority of reviews that have surfaced for Lee's remake essentially carry the same argument for dismissal, saying that for all purposes, it's a note for note copy of the original. Well, to use the parlance of the jazz music that Lee has long championed, it's the notes between the notes you really need to pay attention to in this film.
Need I say we will be dealing in absolute spoilers for both versions?
However, once we finally meet the antagonist, Adrian Pryce (played by Sharlto Copley), I began to get a better inkling of what Lee was really interested in exploring by agreeing to helm this project. Much like his equivalent Lee Woo-jin (played by Yoo Ji-tae) in the original, Pryce seems to have limitless wealth, and is ready to offer a huge amount of it, along with exoneration for the murder of Doucett's wife previously blamed on him, and most importantly, his own suicide, if Doucett can tell him why he caged him for two decades. In both films, it is revealed that a thoughtless incident of youthful voyeurism and slut-shaming by each protagonist led to the death of the antagonist's sister and his desire for revenge. In Park's original, both boys were in high school, and Dae-su is unaware that Woo-jin and his sister were engaged in an incestuous relationship, or that she committed suicide soon after. In Lee's version, both boys (along with another friend, a character in the original manga but omitted from Park's film) are in a much more elite prep school, and this time Doucett unknowingly witnesses Pryce's sister having sex with their father, a moneyed alumnus. It is also revealed the father molested Pryce as well, and after the family relocates to Sweden in the wake of Doucett's rumormongering, the patriarch commits murder-suicide on the entire household, with Pryce as sole survivor. Of all these horrifying revelations, what is the most striking is that as he describes these circumstances, Pryce almost calmly accepts his father's abuse of himself and his sister as normal and acceptable due to the power and respect he commanded by his wealth. Thus, where previously, Woo-jin seeks revenge on Dae-su out of misplaced emotions for his sister, blaming him for the loss of his true love, Pryce, now living under an alias in the wake of his father's rampage, blames Doucett for the loss of his family name and the influence it had carried. And that was where it all clicked for me.
Spike Lee's OLDBOY does not and will never trump, transcend, or escape the shadow of Chan-wook Park's OLDBOY in the manner that, say, John Huston's THE MALTESE FALCON supplanted Roy Del Ruth's earlier production. However, as a stand-alone movie, as a different reading of a familiar story, and as a unit (if not a full-on "joint") of Lee's large body of work, it's a compelling film with something to say, even if for now, nobody wants to listen. I hope it doesn't take 20 years for it to find a hospitable audience.