Oldboy is a perfectly serviceable and unremarkable Hollywood thriller. This, incidentally, makes its existence all the more pointless.
If you’re one of the poor, misguided souls who follow me on Twitter, you may have picked up on my trepidation regarding Oldboy, the Spike Lee-helmed American remake of the 2003 South Korean, Park Chan-wook directed classic. You may have seen me repeatedly fear that those involved were going to screw it up, that they had no choice but to screw it up because Oldboy (the Korean one) is crazy in a way that simply won’t fly in America, that it was going to be a train-wreck of epic proportions. Except that, as the release date neared, my outright cynicism turned into quiet excitement. I was looking forward to the release of Oldboy (the American one). After all, though it is crazy, Oldboy (the Korean one) has a great baseline story and, seeing as I was so certain that they’d have to change the twist, I was really looking forward to seeing what everyone involved would do instead. It wasn’t going to be boring, which is more than I can say for other films I was looking forward to this year.
And it’s not boring. Not in the slightest. The tale of Oldboy (the Kore… right, stuff this, you’ll know which one I’m talking about when, you’re not stupid) is too good for it to be boring. It’s a good, serviceable Hollywood thriller. Problem is, well, that’s kind of all there is. It’s a Hollywood thriller. One with more violence and gorn and taboo stuff than your average run-of-the-mill thriller, but it’s your standard Hollywood thriller. There’s no style, no affection and, most damningly of all, no semblance of pacing. It’s the definition of “good enough for a matinee”. And as for the Oldboy fans who want to know what’s changed… we’ll get to that later. Let’s deal with the movie on its own merits, first.
The plot: Advertising executive Joe Doucett (played by Josh Brolin) is abducted suddenly with no explanation in 1993 and locked into a prison cell decked out to look like a hotel room. Here he is kept for the next 20 years, in the meantime learning that he has been framed for the rape and murder of his ex-wife, swearing vengeance on those responsible, teaching himself to fight, writing letters that he plans to send to his daughter when he gets out and plotting his escape. However, on the day of his planned escape attempt, he’s released, given a phone with an ominous 86 hour countdown on it and some spending money. Resolved to reunite with his daughter and punish those responsible, Joe goes searching for answers.
I’d explain more, but to completely summarise the plot’s outline is to sum up the entire first hour of the film. This isn’t a problem in the Korean original, because that one runs two hours and is paced in a manner that everything that happens after the villain officially enters the picture gets as much time as what came before. Here, the pacing is all over the shop. It’s never slow, but it’s also insanely rushed once the final 40 minutes kick in. Once Sharlto Copley turns up as the villain (do not worry, that’s not a spoiler, I swear), the film, which was quite fast-paced as is, suddenly bolts awake and starts sprinting towards the finish-line as fast as humanly possible, blowing through the two key questions and the act necessary to set up the ending in barely 20 minutes. Consequently, this leads to characters with an extraordinary lack of depth and motivation which lowers the stakes for the finale. Oldboy’s finale worked because the pacing gave you enough time to understand the motivations of all of those involved; Oldboy just wants to get to the fireworks factory as soon as humanly possible, much to its detriment.
Other changes from the original, without resorting to spoilers (there will be a separate section at the end of the review for that), are mostly superficial. Smartphones are featured because we are in 2013, though Joe seems to adapt surprisingly well to the technology. The woman who Joe meets and consequently partners up with in his quest for answers (Elizabeth Olson, who deserves so much better) is a nurse who helps convicted felons instead of a chef. Fight scenes are tightly choreographed affairs instead of the more realistic and charmingly rough and shambolic nature of the Korean original. Violence is much grislier with less left to the imagination and the extremely dark humour of the original is sucked out in favour of a super-serious and straight-laced telling of the story (as an example: that scene where Oh Dae-su tries, and fails, to sexually assault Mi-do on the toilet has no equivalent here).
Most of the changes seem to have been made less to bring it up to the modern day and to put a new spin on things, and more to just try and squeeze Oldboy into the Hollywood thriller template. There’s no personality here, no uniqueness. The film hits all of the Oldboy beats but doesn’t do anything with them, nothing to make it its own except the tiniest cosmetic difference. So the one-take hammer fight (which has had a cut placed into it by producers, a really obvious, pace-ruining and thoroughly unnecessary cut) now takes place across two floors of a parking garage and is very tightly choreographed. It’s a good fight scene, but it has no real personality of its own. If it weren’t for the one-take nature and the side-on camera-angle, it could have been a fight sequence in any Hollywood action movie. This personality-less, committee-driven facsimile design seems to have bled through into the director’s chair as Spike Lee does absolutely nothing to the material to make it his own. Excepting a few signature shots, there could be literally anyone else behind the director’s chair on this and I would not have noticed. Lee is a hired gun on this film and nothing more.
The cast similarly attempt to get through this film delivering performances good enough to passably sell the material but not doing anything to stick out in the memory, bar two. On the negative end, there’s Josh Brolin who is so incredibly miscast in the lead it is unreal. In the first 30 minutes, Joe has to go from a miserable, alcoholic, despicable failure of a human being to a renewed, determined, hate-filled vengeance-seeking beast of a man. Josh Brolin takes this as meaning that he starts off playing Barney Gumble and then morphing into a stoic Jason Statham. Seriously, his portrayal of a sad, broken down alcoholic is equal parts unconvincing and unintentionally hilarious and everything after his release is almost nothing but extreme seething anger. It’s more the script’s fault once he does get released, as Brolin is very capable in regards to playing seething anger, but it is very one-note and underplayed.
On the complete opposite end of “one-note and underplayed”, however, we have Sharlto Copley. Now, Copley in District 9 and Elysium has impressed me to no end in his skills as an actor, the majority of my love for Neill Blomkamp’s films come from his outstanding performances, so I was setting myself up for a memorable turn from him as our villain. It’s memorable, alright. It also appears to have come from a completely different film. Specifically, a Bond film where he’s playing the bad guy. Adopting an equal parts strong and campy posh British accent, Copley spends every single second he’s on screen tearing into all of the scenery he can find. The man seems to have an addiction to the scenery in this film because there is not one single line he is given that he doesn’t coat with ham and cheese in between two lovely crackers. Yet, somehow, it works! Probably because the rest of the film is so joyless and personality-deprived, Copley having fun imbues the film with genuine life and, for the roughly 20 glorious minutes he takes the screen for, Oldboy gains a reason to exist and be watched. Other people may be put off by just how hammy Copley goes, but I personally loved it!
It should be stressed, in closing, that Oldboy is not a bad film. It’s too competently made, the story the film uses is too strong and the film is just engaging enough for it to not be that. It’s just pointless. I honestly would have preferred a version that made huge sweeping changes and American-ised the sh*t out of the story because that would have at least meant a film with a personality of its own. Instead, OIdboy is just a cheap facsimile of the Korean original that offers no reason for its existence, barring Sharlto Copley’s unofficial Bond villain audition. For people who don’t like foreign language movies and want see what all the fuss was about, here’s a version of the film that lacks the style, substance, pacing and dark humour the original is so beloved for but is now in English so who cares, right? On the other hand, the original is on Netflix and watching that saves you the $8 cost of going to see this one in the cinemas. You choose.
OK, now that that’s out of the way, let’s use the remaining two paragraphs to talk about what likely all of you are here to find out: if they’ve changed the twist. I’m going to put these two paragraphs in a spoiler block, but I’m not going to explain the specifics of what the remake does or does not do. Therefore, you can find out if the film has made major changes without spoiling the specifics in case you then want to go see it. If you haven’t seen the original Oldboy, it is strongly advised that you do not read past the next image. Last chance…
The Twist is the same, The Reveal is different.
OK, let me elaborate: the BIG moments in Oldboy, in my mind, are made up of The Reveal, where we discover the identity of Oh’s imprisoner and the reason why he was imprisoned in the first place, and The Twist, where we find out that Oh and Mi were more linked than they ever could have believed. The Twist is exactly the same but it makes very little sense in the terms of this movie as neither of the two in question have been hypnotised into meeting each other and Joe in this movie never shows any warmth or bonding towards Marie, as she’s called here. It makes the act that sets up the finale ring hollow where, much like the rest of the times new Oldboy apes old Oldboy, it feels like that and The Twist are there because that’s what was in the original Oldboy. Those who haven’t seen the original will likely have their minds blown regardless, but whereas the twist is both shocking and makes perfect poetic sense in the original, here it’s just shocking. This also leads to a much, much different ending which makes sense in regards to how underdeveloped the characters in this version are, but that’s as much credit as I’m giving it.
As for The Reveal, the motivation of the villain… much like the hammer fight sequence, that’s been changed in a way that’s supposed to be bigger and better and… no. No. It’s grosser than the original, doubly so during a very quick and implied action during the flashback reveal, but it also serves to send the villain’s arc careening off the deep end. The genius in The Reveal in Oldboy was that it made the supposed villain just as tragic and sympathetic as our supposed hero. A very gross and f*cked-up kind of sympathetic, but sympathetic nonetheless. Here… I honestly don’t know what it was going for besides “we’re going up to 11, TAKE THAT, KOREAN CINEMA!” because it just makes the villain’s reasoning for torturing Joe lose all resonance and meaning. It’s endemic of the problems with New Coke Oldboy: going through the motions of Classic Coke Oldboy without realising why those motions worked and with its attempts at going bigger only serving to further the damage.
Callum Petch is forever hearing Dita’s plea, “Daddy, daddy, don’t be mean to me.” Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!