Ten years ago, a movie called "Oldboy" was released in South Korea and quickly turned on the whispery allure of a forbidden cult classic. Based on a Japanese comic book and expertly directed by Chan-wook Park, whose first English language film debuted this year with the gleefully perverse "Stoker," "Oldboy" was one of those movies that seemed too extreme, too odd and too, well, South Korean to ever be adapted for American audiences. But here we are, with an American remake headed for theaters nationwide.
"Oldboy" is the tale of a man (played in this version by Josh Brolin) who is mysteriously imprisoned for 20 years and released just as mysteriously. It's upon his release that he seeks revenge for his torture and imprisonment, and attempts to figure out why he was locked up in the first place. Joining him in his quest is a helpful social worker (Elizabeth Olsen) and an old friend (Michael Imperioli). Sharlto Copley and Samuel L. Jackson play very bad dudes, respectively. Also, Spike Lee, a genuine American auteur, directed this remake. Not too shabby.
How well does the remake stand up to the original? And if you haven't seen the first one will it have any bearing on your enjoyment of this new film?
1.It Sticks Pretty Close to the Original in Some Regards...
Everyone who saw (and, presumably, loved) the original "Oldboy" is worried about one thing: did they preserve the shocking-as-hell twist from the end of that movie. The answer is yes. And, truth be told, this new "Oldboy" does echo the original, both with specific plot points like the one above but also in its overall mood and tone, a kind of aching loneliness mixed that, when coupled with film noir theatrics, packs a punch. It's oftentimes surprising how closely the film hews to the original...
2. ...But Deviates Wildly in Other Areas
...Except that often it doesn't, in truly disastrous ways. In the first film, Brolin's character was imprisoned for 15 years, which amounted to a total screen time of about fifteen minutes. In the new film, he's locked up for the entire first act of the movie, which means that he's got to rush through the mystery, and it just seems kind of unnecessary. Similarly, his quest for truth and justice also becomes a quest for... diamonds (don't ask) and the third act twist, while still intact, doesn't have the follow-through that the first film did. In short: It's the decaffeinated version of the first film, weaker and less impactful.
3. There Is No Attempt at Making Josh Brolin Age
Unlike the original film, too, we see more of Josh Brolin pre-imprisonment. Not only does this cut down on the element of mystery because we can see how much of a jerk he is, but there's also a complete lack of trying to convey Brolin's age. Brolin is 45, which means that he would have gone into the secret prison in his mid twenties. But he looks 45 when he enters and 45 when he leaves, which makes things like the arduous passage of time seem considerably less convincing. It hurts both the character and the narrative severely and threatens to sink the whole ship, super-early in the movie, too. Considering what's capable with make-up effects and digital tinkering, there are really no excuses on this one.
4. It's Virtually Style-Free
Spike Lee is often heralded as a social commentator and socially-minded filmmaker, but he's also a supreme stylist, able to craft dense, nearly velveteen visuals alongside his provocative storylines. But here the movie looks flat, washed-out and dull; it's virtually style-free. This is especially damning considering how embroidered the original film was; it was a style smorgasbord. But here things are just ugly. It's an eyesore.
5. This Is NOT 'A Spike Lee Joint'
Sometime during post-production, "Oldboy" went from being a "Spike Lee Joint," which is how he labels most of his films, to the more impersonal "Spike Lee Film." (We know this because we've seen early promotional materials distinguishing it as a "Spike Lee Joint.") It's easy to see why: not only are those stylistic flourishes missing, but his patented social consciousness is nowhere to be seen. It's the most anonymously directed movie he's ever done, and makes things like "Inside Man" or "Summer of Sam" seem like profoundly personal artistic expressions. Such a drag.
6. Elizabeth Olsen Is Terrific and Adorable
Elizabeth Olsen, who many remember from "Martha Marcy May Marlene" and "Silent House," is absolutely terrific as the mystery woman aiding in Brolin's blood-fueled rampage. It's never completely clear why she's helping him, but that's more on the filmmakers than her. It should also be noted that she is very, very adorable.
7. It Is Not Recommended for the Squeamish or Pregnant Women
"Oldboy" is really violent and really disturbing. During one prolonged torture sequence, where small bits of Samuel L. Jackson's neck are cut away with an exact-o knife, an older woman sitting next to me started gathering her belongings to leave the screening room (ultimately she chose to stay). This is just one of the many grueling, stomach-turning moments in "Oldboy," a film that doesn't shy away from administering both physical and psychological wounds. It's a doozy. And one not recommended for anyone even remotely squeamish (or pregnant). Sadly, these bold bursts of splattery violence are probably the best part of the movie.
8.Sharlto Copley Is Up to... Something
Since we can't really talk about who Copley plays without giving something away, just know that he's basically playing Vincent Price as a low-rent James Bond bad guy. We're not even really sure what Copley was up to, and whether or not the performance was brilliant or horribly misjudged. But we give him credit for at least attempting something, even if we can't decide what that something was.
9.The Hammer Fight Is One-Upped
The crown jewel of the original movie was a single-take fight sequence where our hero battles a whole squadron of combatants using a hammer. Well, Lee can't help but try to top the original hammer sequence, by making it even longer and staging it in a split-level parking garage. (Recently, he said that the studio made him insert a cut.) It's certainly bigger than the original film's hammer fight but not necessarily better. In fact, this seems more tonally out of balance, since the rest of the movie doesn't contain the original's rococo visual flair. So there's just this really long, really drab fight sequence in the middle of Spike Lee's "Oldboy" for no reason. Snooze.
10. We're Dying for the Three-Hour Cut
Both Spike Lee and Josh Brolin have mentioned in interviews recently that there's a far longer, vastly superior three-hour cut of "Oldboy" (it currently clocks in at a little over 100 minutes). We are dying to see that movie, because this version just doesn't live up to expectations. With more room to breathe, we imagine Lee was able to develop the characters, themes, and visual motifs more fully, so that it doesn't feel like a bunch of randomness awkwardly wedged together, which is how it plays now. While a director's cut usually contributes to the "longer is better" mode of movie-making, it isn't always the case. With "Oldboy," though, we can't help but hope for better.