In 2003, Chan-wook Park directed what is quite possibly the greatest revenge thriller in cinema. If not the best. “Oldboy” certainly ranks among the greats, and to this day it has stood the test of time for its brutality, and its shocking twist. Many would think that only in a country like South Korea could you produce a film like this, and for the most part, they’re right. Spike Lee set out to prove otherwise with his remake this year. “Oldboy” brings the brutality and shock of the original to America. Something, however, is unfortunately lost in translation.
“Oldboy” sees Josh Brolin as Joe Doucett, an advertising exec in 1993. He’s a deadbeat dad with a hateful ex-wife, and a mean drinking problem. Soon after missing his daughter’s birthday, he’s kidnapped and finds himself locked in a motel room. He’s fed, provided with a TV and fresh clothes, but no other contact with his captors, or the outside world. This is his life for the next twenty years. He is then released without notice or explanation, and fights his way through countless thugs and henchman to learn the secret of his imprisonment, and the fate of his daughter.
“Why did I imprison you for twenty years?”
Let me start by saying, the film is not as good as the original. That is a given. Chan-wook Park’s film is a masterpiece of story telling and character development. That movie hits you like a sack of bricks. This movie, though, while not a bad film, hits more like a bag of feathers. It’s impossible not to compare it to the original, and so the impact is quite a bit lessened. However, in all fairness, the remake also has to be seen on its own terms. And in that sense, it’s actually quite good.
Brolin owns the role of Doucett (originally, Dae-su in the 2003 film). As the loud mouthed drunk he’s perfect. A little too perfect, actually. Watching him slowly go insane in his private prison was real and engaging and pretty tragic. And once he emerges, as the disciplined vengeance vehicle he’s become, things really start to pick up. It’s a solid performance by a solid actor who really needs to be in more movies. The rest of the cast is solid enough. Elizabeth Olsen holds her own and shows why she’s not to be lumped in with her sisters. Samuel L Jackson is… present, and ridiculous as expected, but he serves his purpose.
“Why did I let you go?”
Sharlto Copley plays the terrifying stranger, and I mean terrifying. There’s something just so unsettling about everything about him; the way he speaks, the way he carries himself, he’s just off-putting. He really steals the scenes he shares with Brolin. It’s an entirely over the top performance but it fits so well with the tone. Here he really shows that he’s got some serious range to him. Along with “Elysium“, this is the second film he’s made this year where he’s outshone the movie itself.
Where the film suffers a bit is the pacing and editing. The original was exactly as long as it needed to be. This film was quite obviously cut down by producers to fit a more consumable running time. So, sadly, the story comes off a bit clunky and the transitions a little jarring. There is an attempt to recreate the brilliantly infamous “hammer scene” from the original. Even this, however, is not up to snuff. The violence is brutal, and the one-shot style is impressive, but it falls short of the Korean scene.
“I’m gonna keep going until I can rip your head off with my bare hands.”
What I will give the movie props for, with no caveats, is that it’s fearless. Spike Lee has kept the plot, obscenity, and twists of the original film entirely intact. This makes for a very interesting movie to watch. North American audiences are not always open to such twisted concepts, so it’s relatively refreshing to see a movie be so “in your face” with its dark and twisted nature. Yes, Spike Lee is known for trying to be a little too “in your face”, but here it actually works.
In the end, Spike Lee’s “Oldboy” never had a chance of holding a candle to the original, but in the interest of fairness, forget that. On its own, it’s a perfectly enjoyable, if twisted, film from a filmmaker who still has his merits even if he is an insufferable prick most of the time.