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Digesting the lowest rung of pop culture so you don't have to!
Park Chan-wook’s 2003 effort Oldboy is often lauded as a modern cult classic. It is almost universally beloved by a strong contingent of diehards on the internet and made many best of the decade lists at the end of 2009. The grim subject matter, including taboo subjects such as incest, kidnapping, revenge, and murder, obviously helped the film play to the cult crowd, and even helped put South Korean films on the radar of American moviegoers. Oldboy also featured a nigh legendary action sequence where the protagonist fights with a clawed hammer in a cramped alleyway. Taking three days and 17 tries to capture its complexity, the scene has become arguably more famous than the film that spawned it.
A handful of years after Oldboy’s release (and just a few years after the film began drawing enormous buzz and attention stateside), film production companies Universal and DreamWorks began development on an American remake. Initially set to star Will Smith with Steven Spielberg attached as director, production stalled after a lawsuit, and the project was scrapped in late 2009. A year and a half later, however, the Oldboy remake was given new life when it was announced that Spike Lee would take on the project. Josh Brolin was cast as the lead, and a significant search for the role of the villain eventually landed on Sharlto Copley, the South African actor best known for starring in 2009’s District 9. Supporting roles went to Elizabeth Olsen, Samuel L. Jackson, and James Ransone. Production on Oldboy finally began in October 2012, with plans for an October 2013 release date. So, what exactly went wrong?
Spike Lee is a controversial public figure. He has had many well document battles with studio executives, going back well over 20 years at this point. Oldboy was no different of a project for Lee. His final version came in at a hefty 140 minutes, which made producers immediately balk. The film was re-edited, against Lee’s will, to a shorter 105 minutes. Even the hammer scene, which many had probably expected to be a highlight, was edited. Lee and star Josh Brolin immediately spoke out against the edited version, with Brolin stating in an interview that Lee’s version is better (and that Lee’s version may never be commercially released). Ultimately, Lee even took his trademark “Spike Lee Joint” signifier off the film, opting for a more generic “Spike Lee Film” instead.
Why the film was significantly edited so close to release is really anyone’s guess. It wasn’t helpful to Oldboy’s commercial prospects that it was pushed out of its original late October release window and into the madness of a Thanksgiving weekend dominated by family friend fare like Frozen and far, far more commercial properties like Catching Fire and Thor: The Dark World. Oldboy inevitably bombed, becoming one of the weakest commercially released films over the Thanksgiving holiday as reported by Variety. It opened in 18th place, where it barely grossed one million dollars, almost unheard of for a widely released film. The combination of icky subject matter, production controversies, and a poor choice of release date sank Oldboy.
The idea to remake Oldboy probably wasn’t even a good one in the first place. It has been years at this point since remakes of Asian cult films have been successful at the box office. Really only The Ring and The Grudge have been successful, and their success was likely due at least somewhat to the Cool Japan craze of the early 00s (as well as their novelty at the time). The original South Korean Oldboy is also lauded as a modern cult classic, and cult classics reach a limited audience for a reason – they are unique and original films that stay outside the mold and gain reputations for the odd, bizarre, or interesting subject matter within them or maybe even the troubled production histories they spawn. A remake of a film like Oldboy is kind of against the point of what a cult classic should be. An American version of something that already exists and is well respected was never going to succeed and was probably foolhardy to even try. Just leave things well enough alone.