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Title :Oldboy (2013)
Release : 27 November 2013 (USA)
Runtime: 1h 44min
Genre :Action, Drama, Mystery
Stars : Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, Samuel L. Jackson
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Oldboy (2013) trailer
Oldboy (2013) review
In 2003, Oldboy struck at precisely the right time for movie lovers. It was able to introduce a whole slew of canny viewers to the then-blossoming world of Korean cinema. It put director Park Chan-wook and his Vengeance Trilogy on the map. For the film, famed for its violence, style, and shocking twist ending, a fate as the subject of a Hollywood remake was all but sealed. We have been taught to be wary of American “reinterpretations” of foreign films, but Spike Lee at the director’s helm and a strong cast made this particular project seem more promising. But it was all for naught. Oldboy is just another remake that merely imitates the original, the repeated elements done with less verve and the (few) new elements not adding anything substantial.
I must admit that I’m not sure how I would have reacted to this film if I hadn’t seen the first. Too many times, I caught myself comparing the two, which isn’t fair to the new movie. I can be confident of one thing, though: if I were ignorant of the 2003 Oldboy, I’d have no idea why this movie has its title, since that namesake part has been left behind in the transition. And something like that leaves me with a similar feeling that I get when I watch too many modern adaptations of books – that this is meant for those already in the know, and not really capable of standing on its own. Compare this to the 2003 Oldboy, itself based on a Japanese comic book series, but which stands as a towering example of great adaptation. It took the premise of the book and did its own thing with it, rather than use the comic panels as storyboards.*
The story is, beat for beat, identical to that of the original, merely transplanted from Korea to America. Josh Brolin plays Joe Doucett, an ad man who’s made a complete mess of his life through alcoholism. Just as everything is about to completely fall apart, he is abducted and put into a hotel room-like prison. Trapped there for 20 years, he sobers up, bulks up, and watches TV. Through a true crime show, he learns that his wife has been murdered, he’s the main suspect, and his daughter has been adopted. Eventually, Joe is set loose back into the world, and he immediately begins to hunt for whoever imprisoned him, and find out why they did so.
All knowledge of the first film set aside, the acting is self-evidently lackluster. Brolin sometimes tries to channel the manic strangeness of a man who’s been kept away from all human contact for two decades, but he’s mostly just flat. Elizabeth Olsen plays Marie, a soup kitchen worker who becomes Joe’s companion on his crusade, and it’s another frustrating addition to the string of thankless roles she’s gotten since her dynamite debut in Martha Marcy May Marlene. She has no dimensionality to speak of, and no rapport with Brolin, which becomes disastrous when the relationship between their characters turns romantic. Sharlto Copley brings no menace at all to his role as the villain, less a master plotter than an idly rich idiot. Samuel L. Jackson almost seems to be doing a parody of his “type” as Chaney, the man who oversees Joe’s unusual prison. He takes every opportunity to yell “motherfucker” and does little else.
With the exception of a certain bit involving an octopus, every major moment from the 2003 Oldboy gets replayed. They are conveyed with a style that either makes them feel muted or which feels so similar to the first time around as to be pointless. One example of a change that feels muted is Joe torturing Chaney. In the original, his character pulled out the man’s teeth with the claw of a hammer. This time around, he excises pieces of his neck with a box cutter. Still gruesome, but not nearly as memorable or vivid.
An example of a pointlessly imitative scene is a hallway fight, in which Joe faces down dozens of bad guys with a hammer in hand. This is probably the best-known sequence from the 2003 Oldboy, a spectacular long take that plays like a grim parody of a beat-em-up video game. The new version isn’t quite shot-for-shot, but it goes so far as to include the same incredibly specific actions from the various players as in the original. It’s like watching amateurs redo the scene for a film school class. It doesn’t help that, while the 2003 fight is palpably vicious, the new one looks fake. Few blows look like they’re really being landed, a dissonant contrast with the over-the-top sound effects in the audio. It’s another part of the movie that I know for sure I’d still hate even if I’d gone in fresh.
Of course, the main question on the minds of fans of Oldboy is if this remake preserves the ending, whether a Hollywood production would have the guts for it. Credit where credit is due, they kept all the ugly details, and it’s sure to surprise and upset the virginal viewers. But it still pales next to the original. The big reveal and its aftermath are horridly rushed, giving the audience little time to absorb the full horror of what they see. The masterstroke of Oldboy was that it turned into something nigh-on operatic at its climax, as it revealed that what seemed to be a kickass revenge story was in fact a Greek-style tragedy.
I still feel like this film had a chance to be good. But starting with a shiftless script that did little more than copy and paste the original and make a few cultural translations, no one in this movie brought any vitality to the table. Spike Lee’s energy is all but absent. Apparently one of his trademark dolly shots was in the movie, but I can’t remember what it was. The film was shot in New Orleans, but I didn’t know that until reading about it afterwards, so void was any local flavor. The new Oldboy is a nothing film, sloppy when taken on its own and abhorrent when compared to its predecessor.