Oldboy review

Can Spike Lee's US remake of Park Chan-wook's pitch-black thriller Oldboy possibly match the original? Ron finds out...

Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) isn’t much of an advertising executive. Or a husband; he’s divorced. Or a father; he blows off his daughter’s birthday. Or much of anything aside from a fall-down alcoholic who goes through pints of vodka like most people consume bottled water. After a particularly fierce bender, Doucett wakes up in a hotel room. He’s alone, trapped inside this strange room. He’s being fed and cared for, but he’s getting absolutely no interaction from the outside world, aside from TV.

After a staggering 20 years of captivity, as expressed by news clip mash-ups, Doucett is packed away in a crate and finally freed with a brand-new iPhone, an envelope full of cash, sunglasses, and not much else. His wife has been brutally murdered and his daughter has been turned over to the authorities as a ward of the state. Joe is abandoned, adrift, and wanted by the police. However, Joe has a singular, all-consuming goal: find the person who ruined his life and get revenge.

One of the big positives of the movie is its cast. This is a fully-loaded film from top to bottom, starting with Josh Brolin and moving outward. Brolin is a pretty good centerpiece, kind of a churlish everyman, if everyman could kill folks with a hammer. Sharlto Copley is appropriately big and crazy as the movie’s most interesting-looking character and main antagonist, which is a tough title to claim when you’re sharing a movie with Samuel L Jackson in a variety of crazy costumes. Elizabeth Olsen is always really good in whatever she does, and she’s got a good balance of tough and vulnerable for a fairly thankless part.

The one-two punch of Sharlto Copley and Josh Brolin in full melodrama mode is more than enough to guarantee an experience completely different from the Korean version of Oldboy, but adding in the directorial touch of Spike Lee pushes it to a whole new level. Not one for subtlety here, Lee and company take every moment and blow it up to gigantic proportions. Brolin’s breakdowns are full-on sobs. Every smack of the hammer is punctuated with a scream or a gross meaty crunch.

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Lee brings a few clever touches to this film, sneaking in a cool-looking first-person dolly shot thing and providing some other interesting camera movements, though for the most part things feel pretty static, even safe, from a style standpoint. It’s as if Lee doesn’t want to get in the way of his material, though when it matters most, he still manages to stumble a bit.

The movie’s first fight is incredibly brutal and impactful, but the hallmark of the original Oldboy – and by extension any remake – is the hallway fight scene. Unfortunately for Lee, he’s not an action director, and while his hallway fight scene is pretty good, it’s not even the best fight of this movie. It’s good, and to the credit of Lee, Brolin, and the stunt team, it’s done in what looks like a single take. However, it’s not as claustrophobic as the original since it’s spread out over two floors in comparatively wide spaces. Still, it’s pretty nasty at times and deserves credit for how it handles its violence.

If you’ve seen the original version of Oldboy, then Mark Protosevich’s script won’t contain many surprises. It sticks fairly close to the original in terms of story, though it does differ in some interesting ways. This film spends a little more time on Doucett prior to his kidnapping, and there are other little changes along the way, most of them done to either A) wink at fans of the original film or B) make the Asian-centric original a little more American and palatable to westerners.

All the twists and turns in the story remain, as does its central premise; there are some changes at key points, but they never detract from the story as a whole. It can be a little goofy sometimes, particularly in the hands of Samuel L Jackson, but the comedic touch ends up being a nice break from the grimness of the captivity scenes; when Michael Imperioli’s Chucky explains how to use Google to Doucett or when Doucett complains loudly about the lack of Yellow Pages and public phone booths to Marie, it’s both a reminder of how long he spent locked away and a much-needed laugh line.

All in all, the Oldboy remake is perfectly fine. It’s not as good as the original, and it lacks a lot of the emotional impact of the Park Chan-wook film (this movie claims to be inspired by the original Korean film and makes no mention of the manga in its credits). It’s not a disgrace, nor is it an improvement. Oldboy simply is a retelling of a great Asian suspense thriller mystery for those that hate subtitles, mixed with the color palette of the Americanised version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

Oldboy is out in UK cinemas on the 6th December.

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US Correspondent Ron Hogan has a fondness for Elizabeth Olsen, Josh Brolin, and Sharlto Copley. If you like people doing interesting things, you should be too. Find more by Ron daily at Shaktronics and PopFi.

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3 out of 5