Review: 'Oldboy' (2013)

By: Heather Seebach

The very mention of Spike Lee's Oldboy is enough to send some cinephiles into a spittle-flying, eye-twitching tirade. Park Chan-wook's 2003 cult favorite of the same name is sacred - with good reason - so this remake has been a thorn in many sides since its conception. Remakes run the gamut from heinous to fantastic but regardless of their quality or worth, no remake can erase the original from existence so there is no need for panic, movie fans. Having said that, Lee's re-telling of this revenge tale is a hollow shell of the source material, offering very little to set it apart. It is not nearly as bad as some people will make it out to be but it also does not work hard enough to warrant being such a similar remake of a Korean film that is only ten years old. 

Joe Doucette (Josh Brolin) is kidnapped and held prisoner in a locked room by himself for 20 years. He is framed for the murder of his wife and taunted about his daughter who has been adopted by new parents. He passes the decades by training himself to fight and plotting escape until one day he is set free without explanation. With the help of a social worker named Marie (Elizabeth Olsen), Joe sets out to find whoever imprisoned him and get revenge.

As much as I would love to have gone into this movie 100% without bias, I cannot change the fact that I have seen Park's original. Much like David Fincher's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or Matt Reeves' Let Me In, this is a remake that is not necessarily a cheap cash-in but is still so similar to the original that it's impossible for me to enjoy it objectively. To remedy that problem, the best remakes typically take bold steps away from their predecessors but Oldboy does not.

There are a few small changes but they are not for the better. For instance, Doucette is a far bigger asshole than Oh Dae-su and his punishment is more actively torturous (hint: mice), but it was so much more interesting when a regular man was locked away for decades without any interaction - malicious or otherwise. Visually, the imprisonment scenes are interesting because they feel slightly more horror-esque than those of the original. The room has a Stephen King sort of vibe.

The remake tries to replicate the most famous scenes from Park's Oldboy but fails even as homage. Namely, the corridor hammer-fight scene looks awkward and disappointing. The stunt work is impressive but the choice to re-create the original scene beat-for-beat makes it look more like a fan video. Hell, Milo Ventimiglia did it better. There is actually a much better continuous tracking shot later in this film.

Lee's Oldboy does omit some of the original's memorable scenes, choosing instead to make fun nods to them - some fairy wings here, a severed tongue there. Even the infamous octopus gets spared this time around, so thank you for that, Spike. There are also some key plot changes involving the infamous third act but, again, they are not for the better. The villain's motivation is a stretch and convoluted by excess details. So too are Marie's motivations weak when it comes to helping Joe.

True to Korean revenge films, this one has no shortage of violence. Brolin did a hell of a job getting in shape and working with stunt men on the impressive fight scenes, even if the most important one is visually underwhelming. So too is there a lot of gore and torture, most of which is practical (save for one laughable head-shot). Brolin and the other actors do a good job, but nothing stands out beyond Josh's impressive physical transformation.

Perhaps the biggest ball-drop of Oldboy is the climax. Firstly, the film shows its hand far too early. The villain gets entirely too much screen-time, and chews scenery all during it. Despite that, the character is still not nearly developed enough. Park's film told us so much more about the antagonist in a short amount of time. The big reveal is too drawn out and then capped off with a stupid, unnecessary after-thought. For fans of the original, there is nothing here but frustration. For new fans, the ending may still wow you, but the motives behind it will leave you scratching your head.

Remakes aren't the devil nor is Spike Lee's Oldboy. While fans of the original are the ones most likely to boycott this film, it is actually more geared toward them. If you have never seen the Korean film, I STRONGLY suggest you watch that instead because it is superior and you will want to experience it fresh. If, however, you already saw that one, you may still enjoy this one but don't expect Lee's rendition to add anything new.

Oldboy is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. Both releases include a behind-the-scenes featurette and one about Brolin's transformation, while the Blu-ray release exclusively has alternate & extended scenes, a "Talking Heads" featurette, and a short promo including clips from the workout video in Joe's prison room. Below are links to both releases:

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