Oldboy – Review

oldboy-remake-posterI saw the 2003 Oldboy on DVD shortly after it came out.  It’s good, though I remember that it dragged in the middle, and I am not a fanatic about like so many people that I know.  It has a big cult fan base so the idea of a remake has not been very welcome.  I am a fan of Spike Lee, though his work is very hit or miss for me.  I love some of his pictures like Clockers, He Got Game, Summer of Sam, The 25th Hour, I like some of them and I dislike some of them including his last few.  When he is passionate about the material and engaged by it, he makes truly memorable pictures.  That does not appear to be the case here.

The first 15 minutes are so over the top and as a result bad that I was shocked.  The only actor who comes out of it unscathed is the always good Lance Reddick, but he’s barely in it.  Josh Brolin is particularly bad and I don’t recall him giving a bad performance in anything before.  His character is so clearly an asshole and so completely unlikable that I don’t understand how you hang a movie on him.  No one is going to care what happens to him.  Once we get to the imprisonment, his acting talents return to normal and he’s solid in the rest of the picture.  But for a general audience, I think it’s too late at that point.  I never cared about him.

Spike Lee has assembled an excellent cast that includes Elizabeth Olsen, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Imperioli and James Ransone, all of whom are good in the picture.  But the standout for me was Sharlto Copley as the villain.  It is a truly bizarre performance, but it is a captivating one and it’s clear that Copley is having fun.  Audiences will probably either love or hate him, but I love what he did and it was the one real spark that ignited for me in this picture.

The famous hammer fight is here, but it is a total letdown.  It plays much more like parody than anything intense or even fun.  It is badly choreographed and surprisingly a third of it has been cut out of the movie.  It’s no showstopper like the original was.

A significant section of the movie includes flashbacks as Joe and Marie try to solve the mystery of why he was kidnapped.  The flashbacks work fine, except Director Lee and Screenwriter Mark Protosevich make the bizarre choice of including Brolin and Olsen on screen in those flashbacks as they watch what happens, sort of like A Christmas Carol.  This really lessened the dramatic impact of those scenes for me because it was so strange to see them witnessing it within the scene.

There are some nice surprises in the movie.  And there are also times where you will question the logic of some of the characters and choices.  I won’t get into spoilers, but Lee and Protosevich make another bizarre choice with the ending that is not satisfying in any way.  And the writing in general is just okay.  If you slapped a different title on this screenplay and didn’t pitch it as a remake of Oldboy, I can’t imagine it getting the greenlight.

Spike Lee said that most of the American moviegoing audience doesn’t go to see foreign films because they don’t like to read the subtitles and as such they probably haven’t heard of, let alone seen the original Oldboy.  If that’s the case, why call the movie Oldboy?  It has no meaning in English that I’m aware of.  But most importantly, there’s nothing about this version that is compelling enough to hook the audience.  Maybe they’ll get caught up in the mystery, but I doubt that they will be emotionally engaged.  There’s nothing wrong with remakes so long as the filmmaker is passionate about the material and strives to make something great like John Carpenter’s The Thing or Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  But when it’s just a gig, just another job, you get a picture like this.

So this version of Oldboy is a movie made for no one really.  Fans of the original are not happy that it has been remade and if they see it, they’re still going to love the original and resent this one.  People coming to this cold are not going to find much that will engage them.  And it’s doubtful that it will inspire them to go watch the original.  This Oldboy is a curiosity, but it’s not worth a trip to the theater.

Rating: ★★☆☆☆

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Brian McQuery

Brian is a writer/director from Chicago who has made 9 short films and is developing his first feature. He has hosted Q&A events at the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles for films including GoodFellas and Aliens. He works as an Assistant Director on independent films. He misses Chicago style deep dish pizza, but otherwise loves living in Los Angeles. Web site:

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