Oldboy (2013) (United States, 2013)

November 28, 2013
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Oldboy (2013) Poster

Sometimes I don't understand the Hollywood mindset. Who thought remaking Park Chan-wook's 2003 cult classic, Oldboy, was a good idea? Because of the story's sheer perversity, there's no possible mainstream appeal in this new interpretation. The movie was destined for box office purgatory before it went before the cameras. What's more, the decision to make this "a Spike Lee joint" is as questionable as embarking upon the remake path in the first place. While few will debate Lee's ability as a director, this isn't close to being in his wheelhouse. Oldboy cries out for a Brian DePalma, a Quentin Tarantino, or even a David Lynch. The end result bears out the suspicion that Lee isn't right for the material, nor it for him.

The screenplay by Mark Protosevich sticks reasonably close to the narrative trajectory of the original film (which, in turn, was adapted from a graphic novel), although some of the seemingly inconsequential changes, when taken in total, undermine what worked about Park's version. Lee's approach is straightforward - a distinct change from the sometimes unhinged style exhibited in the original. Most of the flaws remain intact while new ones are added into the mix. Critical viewers may note that there were problems with the ending of the first Oldboy; those issues are only magnified in the remake and, although the content of the "shock" remains the same, its impact is diluted.

Josh Brolin plays Joe Doucett, a thoroughly dislikeable alcoholic asshole who ends up imprisoned in a faux hotel room for 20 years for reasons unknown. The character is presented so distastefully that one is tempted to sympathize with his captor. Early in his incarceration, Joe learns that his ex-wife has been raped and murdered and his young daughter has been put up for adoption. Joe is the prime suspect in the killing - his DNA, harvested by the people responsible for his current situation, is found at the crime scene. After two decades, he is suddenly and inexplicably released. At first, he's lost - a modern-day Rip van Winkle, but then he gets help from an old buddy, Chucky (Michael Imperioli), and Marie (Elizabeth Olsen), a woman who works with the downtrodden. Joe learns the identity of his captor - a man named Chaney (Samuel L. Jackson). But the real target for his revenge is Adrian (Sharlto Copley), the man who paid Chaney. There are two questions for Joe to answer: Why did Adrian imprison him for 20 years? And why did he release him? Aided by Marie, Joe goes on a trail that leads into his own past.

Brolin is either miscast or misdirected; it's difficult to determine which. He wanders through the film in stupor, his face set in an angry mask, looking a lot like Nick Nolte of about 20 years ago. The dour nature of the character is reflected in the tone. The only time Lee has any fun with the pulpy elements of the story is when Joe takes on a flotilla of attackers and dispatches them with relative ease (even though he gets a knife in the back for his troubles). Lee directs this scene with a macabre sense of humor and the choreography is smoother and easier to follow than Park's version of the same sequence.

Elizabeth Olsen makes Marie sweet and vulnerable but, although her performance is fine, the relationship between Joe and Marie doesn't work. This is in part due to inept scripting which forces an almost instant romance between these two without allowing it to develop and in part due to the limited chemistry resulting from the robotic way in which Brolin plays Joe. Meanwhile, while Samuel L. Jackson plays Chaney with typical Samuel L. Jackson heat, Sharlto Copley's Adrian is a weak villain whose slick, over-the-top portrayal undermines the film's central tragedy. Oldboy is about consequences but Copley's character is so deliciously evil that the backstory never gains the necessary traction.

Oldboy really should be rated NC-17. The violence is at times extreme - even more so than in the original, and that's saying something. (No octopus, however, except in passing.) The most disturbing scenes aren't the fights but the instances when the effects of shotgun blasts to the head are depicted without cutting away. This material isn't appropriate for anyone under 17. One could argue whether it's appropriate for anyone over 17, but that's another issue.

Lee's Oldboy feels unnecessary - an inferior remake of a movie that had a singular impact upon its release a decade ago. What's more, Oldboy doesn't set out to improve upon the original but merely to change a few thing and a lot of what's altered degrades the material. Those few who see this version without knowing a thing about what they're getting into may be surprised and shocked by some of what's on screen but fans of Oldboy are likely to be disappointed. If I made a list of the most disappointing films of 2013, this would earn a place on it.

Oldboy (2013) (United States, 2013)

Director: Spike Lee
Cast: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, Sharlto Copley, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Imperioli
Screenplay: Mark Protosevich
Cinematography: Sean Bobbitt
Music: Roque Banos
U.S. Distributor: Filmdistrict
Run Time: 1:44
U.S. Release Date: 2013-11-27
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Nudity, Sexual Content, Profanity, Drugs)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1