Movie Review – Oldboy (2013)

Cumbersome, insipid, lacking in texture or good taste, Oldboy’s 2013 remake treads much the same territory as the original, only without the subtlety, the class, or the wit. Spike Lee’s hack-job of a film is utterly lacking in story depth, character development or logic, and a dire performance from Sharlto Copley unravels this turd long before it reaches its “shocking” climax. Ugh.


– Summary –

Director :  Spike Lee
Year Of Release :   2013
Principal Cast :  Josh Brolin, Sharlto Copley, Elizabeth Olsen,Samuel L Jackson, Michael Imperioli, Pom Klementieff, James Ransome, Max Casella, Lance Reddick.
Approx Running Time :  105 minutes
Synopsis:  A man, imprisoned for 20 years, seeks revenge on whoever did this to him; he’s led on a chase to unravel a mystery which, if unsolved, will lead to the death of his long-adopted daughter.
What we think : Cumbersome, insipid, lacking in texture or good taste, Oldboy’s 2013 remake treads much the same territory as the original, only without the subtlety, the class, or the wit. Spike Lee’s hack-job of a film is utterly lacking in story depth, character development or logic, and a dire performance from Sharlto Copley unravels this turd long before it reaches its “shocking” climax. Ugh.


 Olderboy than before.

And so the long line of remake-itis has even scooped the once-great Spike Lee into the eddy, with this misanthropic remake of the original Korean classic, Oldboy, one of the most shocking, amazing films I’ve ever seen. Having now seen the original, there’s little chance the “updated” version, made for dimwitted American audiences who hate reading subtitles (or watching poorly lip-synced dubbing), will contain the same visceral gut-punch Park Chan-wook’s version contained, but in the interests of completing the task of reviewing both, I figured that Spike might just have one or two of his own surprises within it. Surely, right? This is Spike Lee, the groundbreaking, cult film director who never sticks to the mainstream (excepting Inside Man, his most mainstream film yet) and who always seems to want to raise the middle finger up to the suits with the money. Oldboy 2.0, which is the name I’m giving this slick, bloody production, retells the same story as before, although with a few minor modifications to make it palatable to Western audiences – namely, speaking in English. Now, considering the original Oldboy was a bona fide classic, and remains a defining film in my movie-watching career, and also considering most remakes are never – repeat, never – able to recapture that magic, is this American Oldboy worthy of the title even in the slightest? Or, is it another remake they can quite happily throw onto the pile of junk cinema Hollywood spews forth every year, bereft of creative drive and lacking heart and soul?

I'm gonna hammer it home, okay?
I’m gonna hammer it home, okay?

Plot synopsis courtesy Wikipedia:  In 1993, advertising executive Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) ruins a meeting with a potential client, Daniel Newcombe (Lance Reddick), by hitting on his girlfriend. Afterwards, Joe goes to a bar owned by his friend Chucky (Michael Imperioli) and gets drunk. On his way out, he spots a woman with a yellow umbrella, before being knocked unconscious. He awakens in an isolated hotel room and finds he is a prisoner. His captors provide him with basic hygiene items and meager portions of Chinese food. Through the TV, Joe hears that he has been framed for the rape and murder of his ex-wife and that his daughter, Mia, has been adopted. After being prevented from committing suicide, Joe obsessively spends the next 20 years planning his revenge, becoming a skilled boxer by watching televised matches, and compiling a list of everyone who might be responsible for his imprisonment, with Newcombe being the prime suspect. Suddenly, he is drugged and awakes in a box in a field, with money and a cellphone. He spots the woman with the yellow umbrella, whom he chases to a nearby clinic; there he meets Marie Sebastian (Elizabeth Olsen), a nurse who offers to help him. Joe later visits Chucky and tells him what happened. He receives a mocking phone call from the mastermind behind his imprisonment, Adrian Pryce (Sharlto Copley). Joe investigates Pryce’s challenge with Marie, eventually locating an abandoned factory, which is where he was held captive. Joe confronts the owner, Chaney (Samuel L. Jackson), and tortures him into giving him a taped conversation in which he discusses the terms of Joe’s imprisonment with Pryce. After escaping Chaney’s henchmen, Joe returns to Chucky’s bar, where he meets Pryce in person and learns that he’s has kidnapped Mia. Pryce claims that if Joe is able to discover his real identity and his motives for imprisoning Joe, he will not only release Mia but also give Joe $20 million in diamonds and commit suicide.

I'm sorry, did I break your concentration from this being a thoroughly shitty film?
I’m sorry, did I break your concentration from this being a thoroughly shitty film?

Oldboy 2.0 has the basic DNA of Park Chan-wook’s masterwork, and borrows liberally from it with regards to several key scenes, but never comes close to being as poetic, as majestic, as the 2003 version. Spike Lee is brave to even attempt it, so I guess if you’re going to hand out plaudits, one might throw a few claps his way for trying to Americanize the story of vengeance and redemption, but that’s about it. Oldboy 2.0 is gory, glorified violence that is passionless and meaningless, thanks to a razored script and Lee’s inability to grasp the mystery of the original story. Where Oldboy’s story of horror and revenge allow3ed the viewer to associate with the central figure, until a mid-point twist where we suddenly find everything we know turned on its head (at least in terms of where we should focus our sympathies), Oldboy 2.0 never achieves this level of audience involvement, robbing the final, heartbreaking scene of all power and shock. Even knowing what was to come, I thought the film lacked edge, lacked the sexy, malevolent heartbeat the story has at its core, and became simply a husk of a better story, vacant from within.

Haven't we all had hangovers like this!
Haven’t we all had hangovers like this!

It’s hard to pinpoint  the exact cause of this malaise. The characters are nearly identical (although Sharlto Copley’s British accent for Pryce is beyond terrible, stretching into unintentionally hilarious, ruining many of his scenes) to the original film, and with some minor conceptual differences within each scene, the films are almost beat-for-beat the same in structure. Yet, Lee’s film lacks the subtlety, the lyrical textures of Chan-wook’s, leaving the hurried narrative and stretching-credulity plot lapses to catch audiences falling into them. Whereas Oldboy felt justified in its length, Oldboy 2.0’s relatively shorter running time creates an odd sense of compressed time, without any kind of ability for Lee to generate audience empathy. I should point out that the version released theatrically (and reviewed here) is what you’d term a “producer’s cut”, ie the producers came in and hacked out a fair percentage of Lee’s film – according to reports, the original cut ran to some 140 minutes, a far lengthier version than the hour and a half on offer here; one wonders what might have been had Lee’s original vision been allowed to stand. The edit here feels constricted, almost as if the studio and producers wanted to excise much of what you’d think would be “character development” and get straight into the hammer-wielding, body-rending violence, because that’s what American kids want to see. Oh, what might have been! However, one cannot review a film one hasn’t seen, only one one has, so this review is – unfortunately – based on the version we did see.

Creepy dude creeps.
Creepy dude creeps.

With Spike Lee’s version lacking any kind of warmth, due in part to its springboard pacing, we’re left with a bizarre mix of unexplained concepts and story ambiguity that will confuse and confound most. In fact, had I not already seen the original version, there’s a fair chance I’d never have really understood what the hell was going on in this one. The imprisonment of Joe lacks definition, within itself as a premise and contextually over the entire film, as does Adrian Pryce’s motivations, which are far murkier here than in the original film but still somewhat tenuous as a revenge arc. Joe’s attraction to Marie feels manufactured, almost nonsensical considering the amount of time the characters actually spend together within the story before they have sex, and poor Samuel L Jackson’s character, Chaney, is vastly underdone by the editor’s razor – his part is almost non-existent in comparison to the same character in the 2003 version. And the lack of explanatory dialogue or imagery throughout Oldboy 2.0’s running time means we never fully understand what the hell is going on, not really anyway, even if the film does try to give us some insight with a hasty, awkward scene as Joe begins to uncover the mystery.

Ahh, did you get that from District 9, or Elysium?
Ahh, did you get that from District 9, or Elysium?

As far as casting goes, I think Josh Brolin’s performance here lacks grace or nuance, with Brolin somehow unable to master the edginess the character required to transition from hopeless drunkard to rage-fueled vengeance-seeker as much as he needed to; and poor Elizabeth Olsen bares plenty of flesh without offering much depth to her character in Marie. Brolin and Olsen lack chemistry together, making their mutual attraction something of a question mark for audiences, and the original film’s crucial “hypnosis” subplot has been excised completely here, making their inevitable hook-up all the more unbelievable, if not entirely icky. Sam Jackson’s shouty character looks more like a Vegas pimp than a prison-running asshole, Michael Imperioli’s awfully named Chucky lacks any kind of friendly vibe towards Joe, and James Ransome’s doctor character is vaguely third-wheel exposition which the story (at least in its current form) really didn’t need.

Don't worry Mr Jackson, this will only hurt a hell of a lot.
Don’t worry Mr Jackson, this will only hurt a hell of a lot.

Easily the most annoying and aggravating change to come out of Oldboy 2.0 is Sharlto Copley’s ubiquitous “stranger” character, Adrian Pryce. Whereas in the original film this character added a further layer of mystery and empathy, bordering on sympathy, here Copley’s just a douche, a vastly, inordinately unsympathetic one. His character of Pryce, complete with a ridiculous British accent (if it’s any comparison, he’s worse with this accent than Dick Van Dyke was in Mary Poppins with his “‘Allo guv’na” talk!), is inherently evil, although the drive for his character to be this way – so effortlessly portrayed with breathtaking simplicity in the 2003 film – evaporates with every dire enunciation coming from Copley’s mouth. It’s pantomime stuff, and I’m seriously doubting that an extended, original cut of this film would ever improve it to the point of being tolerable. Whatever – Copley’s role is poorly handled in this edit, missing much of the raw, unbridled fury the character needed to generate the motivation to play this out to the end-game – I mean, he even offers to kill himself, when he’s apparently a super-rich businessman who could quite easily hide out on a desert island the rest of his life with no worries at all… I mean, logic? I don’t think so.

Let's be honest.... this facebook thing is never gonna work.
Let’s be honest…. this facebook thing is never gonna work.

Oldboy 2.0 is almost certainly as violent as Chan-wook’s version, possibly even more so. It’s a brutal, physically assaulting affair, with bodies, blood and plenty of gore on display when the weaponry is brought out. Lee’s subtle craftsmanship of the violence lacks the balletic nature of the 2003 film, aiming more for viscera than punctuations of the story, as if the gore is revered as a storytelling mechanism in and of itself. This lessens the brutality of what transpires through the film; Lee even reduces the now famous “corridor fight” sequence of the original film to about two minutes of Brolin brawling with some heavies, completing the sequence with a rip-off (I refuse to use the term “riff”) of Chan-wook’s “door opens and hero emerges victorious” moment that it simply hasn’t earned. The original film made Oh Dae-su (Joe in this version) earn his scars, earn his victories – they weren’t easy – and yet here, Lee misses the point of the moment through a lack of grace within the storytelling. These are just a random army of dudes trying to beat Brolin’s character, yet none of them thinks to bring a weapon sharper than a piece of timber? Nobody in this day and age, especially in America, carries a gun when they’re engaging in criminal activity, guarding a building full of prisoners? Yeah, right. It’s stuff like this that makes no sense in Oldboy 2.0, and Lee (or the producers) lack the foresight to see this as being a problem. Gunshots, body hits, blood effects and more are either totally digital (which is easy to spot) or poorly done with practical effects (Brolin’s wrist-slitting suicide bid looks like somebody spilled bright pink paint on his arms), so the violence – while definitely adult themed – is graceless and infertile.

Original concept art for Ridley Scott's Alien.
Original concept art for Ridley Scott’s Alien.

Oldboy 2.0 is a gormless, charmless, perfunctory affair that lacks subtlety, wit or any sense of impact. The story would confuse a rocket surgeon if they hadn’t seen the original film, and the motivation for even telling this story feels like it’s more for the shock and awe of the doing, than any creative higher calling. Spike Lee’s spirited camerawork is no match for Park Chan-wook’s steady, rigid, formula-driven brilliance, heaving itself across the film’s narrative like a whirligig looking for a disaster. Lee doesn’t seem afraid of stealing some camera movies from Chan-wook as well, although if we’re gonna call it stealing, then it’s a pretty cut and dried case, Your Honor. Oldboy 2.0 isn’t smart, it isn’t shocking; really, the plot “twist” at the end is fumbled badly by a horribly edited, dreadfully acted (especially by Brolin, who rivals Darth Vader’s now-reviled “noooooo” at the end of Revenge Of The Sith for cringe-worthiness) and badly staged sequence where the reveal of Oldboy’s central conceit comes along as a whimper, rather than a roar. This in itself is nearly unforgivable, especially moreso considering the death, carnage, emotional wrangling and contemptuous plot machinations which the audience has already endured. I guess if all you’re after is a few nice death scenes and the sight of Elizabeth Olsen’s naked body writhing with the haggard one of Josh Brolin, you’ve chosen the right film.

Once you see that bewb almost falling out, you'll never un-see it.
Once you see that bewb almost falling out, you’ll never un-see it.

Studio hacks take note – if you’re going to remake a foreign language film for a Western audience, at least try and understand why the original film you’re remaking is held in such high regard you feel the need to remake it. Shooting it so you don’t have subtitles simply for the sake of it denigrates the medium of cinema – and it ruins your credibility as storytellers. The original Oldboy is rightly a classic, a veritable masterclass of film-making that should be essential viewing for every film student and wannabe director. Oldboy 2.0 is trash, the ugly, violence-porn echo of a much better film trapped within poor direction, worse acting, and a severe lack of respect for the source material by whoever it was that cut the shit out of this thing and served it up, like a steaming pile of dog turd, to global audiences. Oldboy is like fine dining. Oldboy 2.0 is like jumping into a skip bin and trawling for food thrown out a week ago.





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3 thoughts on “Movie Review – Oldboy (2013)

    1. LOL, yeah, I'm not that big a fan of Lee's work generally, but he's normally a lot more commendable and coherent than this. Let me ask you this question then: would this remake have been better or worse had you not already seen the original?

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