Oldboy (2013) / Thriller-Mystery
MPAA Rated: R for strong brutal violence, disturbing images, some graphic sexuality and nudity, and language
Running Time: 104 min.
Cast: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, Sharlto Copley, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Imperioli, Pom Klementieff, Lance Reddick
Director: Spike Lee
Screenplay: Mark Protosevich (based on the manga by Garon Tsuchiya and Nobuaki Minegishi)
Review published December 9, 2013
If this were a world in which there were no original "Oldboy" adaptation prior to the 2013 version, perhaps Spike Lee (Inside Man, She Hate Me) would get kudos for an audacious work, rather than the current criticism for turning in an inferior retread. Lee directs this superfluous American remake of the 2003 cult classic South Korean flick by Park Chan-wook, which will likely only please viewers who eschew anything that doesn't star recognizable Hollywood actors or which contain subtitles. Lee has subsequently claimed that the film isn't a remake, but rather another interpretation of the original Japanese comic (manga) from Garon Tsuchiya and Nobuaki Minegishi, though this is grossly disingenuous, as the original film was very loosely based on the comic, and Lee's film is very similar to the Korean film. Putting the argument to bed, the opening credits the 2013 release actually mentions that it is a remake of the Korean film, so Lee's defensive position doesn't hold water.
Josh Brolin (Gangster Squad, Men in Black 3) gets the starring role, playing the antihero named Joe Doucett, an obnoxious, egotistical, alcoholic advertising exec living up his post-divorce years not even caring about such things as attending his three-year old daughter Mia's birthday party. Starting off in 1993, Doucett ends up kidnapped and held as a prisoner for reasons unknown in what appears to be the human equivalent of a Roach Motel for 20 years, with his only knowledge of what's going on in the world outside coming through his television. Once released, he's out to get revenge on his captors, out to get clues on just who did this deed, and why he's being framed for the rape and murder of his ex-wife, resulting in his daughter growing up thinking him a murderer. Joe gets assistance from a nurse named Marie (Olsen, Kill Your Darlings), and his old crony and barkeep, Chucky (Imperioli, The Call) .
Lee doesn't direct this film poorly, but if you've seen Chan-wook's original, it's hard not to feel this film is inferior in most respects, as it lacks the trippy atmosphere, taboo-breaking story developments, eye-popping color schemes, and balls-out, anything-goes delivery. The Korean film was just as nonsensical, perhaps even more so, but the American setting makes disbelief suspension that much more difficult for Western audiences, as it isn't able to elevate to the "stranger in a strange land" dimension that the film set in Korea had on its side. While Spike Lee's film is very violent, it stays this side of truly shocking, unlike its predecessor, which was dangerously seedy, gratuitously bloody, and had seemingly no boundaries in terms of where the story might take us.
Though Lee's film does have star appeal, it's in its over-the-top, cranked-to-11 character quirks that Oldboy disappoints. In particular, Samuel L. Jackson's (Django Unchained, The Avengers) bleach-blond mohawk and gold lip clip seems like it belongs in a futuristic movie instead of the world of today. Meanwhile, one can only wonder about the perplexing Bond villain-esque character played by Sharlto Copley (Elysium, Europa Report) as one of the film's main heavies, yet another overcooked, heavily-accented performance for no apparent reason other than to be the oddest character on the screen once again. In other casting trivia: Cinque Lee, Spike's brother, plays the 'hotel' bellhop, an homage to his previous bellhop role in Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train.
In Lee's defense, his original cut ran 25 minutes longer, which was chopped down by the studio, and one can only wonder, until we get the director's cut Blu-ray, how much more coherent the narrative might be. As it stands now, Oldboy is full of some of the most liberal story contrivances in modern-day thriller history, which might be enough, in and of itself, for many viewers to give up trying to figure out each character's extremely farfetched motive for doing a great deal of evil for an insane number of years in order to put a plan in motion that shatters credibility beyond any way to make sense of it all. Chan-wook's take is insanely audacious enough in its unsettling approach to take the story wherever he might want to take it, but Lee's grounded sensibilities keep it comparatively too reeled in, rendering us having to vainly uphold the enormity of the nonsensical plot machinations far too often.
©2013 Vince Leo