Oldboy Review

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The Hollywood remake juggernaut just won't stop!

by Casimir Harlow Dec 12, 2013 at 5:26 PM

  • Movies review


    Oldboy Review

    It's tiring hearing the news that another one of your favourite movies is going to get remade.

    It used to only happen to dated, lesser-known films, then it hit classics, but at least decades had normally passed - and the new film could always offer a different angle by updating the material or even just changing the setting. When foreign films started to gain more prominence, rather than encourage audiences to take chances with subtitled work, the idea became to remake the films in English. It's now a habit.

    Infernal Affairs and Dragon Tattoo were both great films that never needed a Hollywood makeover, but heavyweights like Scorsese and David Fincher nonetheless got involved in crafting their own unnecessary versions.
    The latest victim is Oldboy, a tremendously powerful, highly intoxicating and relentlessly oppressive Korean thriller which is - for those who have seen it - likely a personal all-time favourite. There was no need to remake it. But then Spike Lee's name got attached to the project and a spark of hope appeared on the horizon. Lee has never been a very predictable filmmaker - to his credit - and with him on-board the interest was piqued of even those who loved the original. Unfortunately it's all for nought. Lee is way out of his depth and his take on the classic - at least in its purportedly heavily-edited theatrical format - is just another pointless by-the-numbers remake which adds nothing to the material and which simply does not have any heart to it.

    The story? Many of you will have been down this road before. Suffice to say that nothing much has changed, and certainly nothing for the better. Josh Brolin plays an alcoholic advertising exec who gets knocked unconscious and imprisoned in a room with a TV for 20 years. Whilst inside he learns that he has been framed for killing his wife and that his daughter has been adopted. Upon release he sets about trying to find his daughter, as well as the person responsible for doing this to him, enlisting the help of Elizabeth Olsen's kindly nurse, who takes pity on him after learning what happened to him. The bodies start to pile up but it's not long before a darker truth threatens to reveal itself.

    You've heard it before but I can't stress it enough yet again: save your money and just rewatch the original.

    I must emphasise the fact that Spike Lee's original 140-minute cut may well have been a far superior piece of work to what we get here; indeed I'm not quite sure why the Studios even bothered releasing it theatrically at all, given their blatant disregard for it - I know they were preoccupied with a corporate buy-out, but they still had time to dictate to Lee that he should drastically cut down his movie by about 40 minutes, yet , on the other hand, they couldn't even be bothered to commit to any discernible marketing campaign (surely the film is designed to reach those who may have never seen the original - at this rate it's going to be just as obscure) and, upon release, it ended up being shown at limited times and for a limited run. It's already being hailed as a massive flop and it's only just come out. I feel sorry for Lee, he'll take the blame when the project should never have been greenlit in the first place.

    Of course it's us, the moviegoers, who were always going to be in the lose-lose situation: had this movie remained in the hands of Steven Spielberg and Will Smith, it would have almost certainly been tailored for a PG-13 rating, softened in tone and content, stripped of sex and violence, and of its dark twist ending. Lee's version remains dark and adult, with plenty of sex and gratuitous violence, and with the controversial twist in tact, but somehow lacks any kind of soul.

    Previously we were right there alongside the 'hero', following his relentless, unflinching journey of bloody revenge. Now it's as if we're just going through the motions. Sure, Lee still retains the seminal hammer sequence, and even attempts to transform the side-scrolling platform-game-style action scene into a three-dimensional, multi-level affair, but it simply lacks the same visceral punch. Hell, even the shock ending has had its sting diluted, played as more of an afterthought than a massive jolt to the story. Instead of reeling against the revelation, which itself resulted in one of the most horrific acts of self-mutilation in the original movie, here it's just delivered for effect, rather than with effect.

    The lesson to learn is as much one for the Studios as for Lee - STOP REMAKING (FOREIGN) FILMS.

    Brolin simply doesn't have the same presence as Choi Min-sik's Oh Dae-su and Lee's attempts at giving him more of a fleshed-out background (the alcoholic exec angle) proving totally ineffective and utterly superfluous. Brolin seems like he deserves a decent role but, after so many disappointments (Jonah Hex, True Grit, W, Wall Street 2 and Gangster Squad - a mixed-bag of films where he himself was universally wasted), and so few surprises (he was great in No Country For Old Men and made for a surprisingly convincing Tommy Lee Jones in MIB3), I'd have preferred if they'd gone with someone else. Particularly someone less well-known for playing lantern-jawed tough guys.

    Elizabeth Olsen continues her ambitious tour of dark and sexualised material (Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene), and Sharlto Copley is soon going to become a Hollywood go-to villain, although he was far better in Elysium, but Samuel L. Jackson - the man of many Mohicans - is totally out of place. The irony being that he actually starred in his own little-known, and eminently unofficial remake of Oldboy a few years back - Fury (aka a The Samaritan) - which went straight to DVD and disappeared without a trace.


    I can imagine this being the kind of film people happily check out on Netflix, or wait for on Film 4. Late one night, when you're not too tired and your curiosity outweighs your apathy, you could check it out. But it's not worth your hard-earned cash, your time or your trouble. Just rewatch the far superior original instead. This will soon die a quiet death in the theatres; there are already reports of it having been pulled from a lot of cinemas because it simply was not selling. Unfortunately the blame is going to go squarely on Spike Lee's shoulders, and his outspoken, antagonistic manner probably won't help. However the reality is that this is a lesson that the studios need to learn - certainly, if you're going to get a director like Spike Lee to do a US remake of a classic foreign film then allow him the room to turn in whatever he sees fit, rather than try and get him to conform to your misguided ideals. But, most importantly, don't remake great foreign films in the first place!

    The Rundown

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