'Oldboy' Review By Bryan Yentz

... Where Park Chan-Wook's was an exquisitely precise period of punctuation, Lee's is an exclamation point of thoughtless happenstance...
  • Story
  • Acting
  • Directing
  • Visuals
Of all filmdom, there are few categories which carry such a negative stigma as remakes. For many, a remake signifies an element of hubris on the filmmaker's part; the audacity that they could somehow make better what most would consider already perfect. For others, a remake offers a new outlook on what came before it; paying homage while contributing something possibly new. Few and far between are the noteworthy revisions, but they do exist. A few include John Carpenter's THE THING, the 80's version of THE BLOB, Alexander Aja's THE HILLS HAVE EYES, The American adaption of THE RING and Breck Eisner's take on THE CRAZIES. However, for all of the worthwhile additions to fan favorites, there are typically dozens which drive the word "remake" into an abyss of dread and disappointment. PROM NIGHT, NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, FRIDAY THE 13TH, TOTAL RECALL and I'm willing to put money on it--the new ROBOCOP (which has now been tarnished with a PG-13 rating). Really, the issue comes down to respect. The hope that the filmmaker has reverence for the source material--that he might do right by it. Most of the time, such films are strictly monetary exploitations of a new and naïve generation. Sometimes though. . . Just sometimes, a remake can work even stronger than when it was originally committed to celluloid.

Spike Lee's OLDBOY is not one of these times.

2013's OLDBOY stars Josh Brolin as Joe Doucett; a drunkard, liar and all-around *sshole that finds himself abducted and housed in a small studio apartment for twenty years with no apparent reason. During his imprisonment, he's shown news footage detailing the murder-rape of his ex-wife and the adoption of his daughter. Much like the original's, Oh Dae-Su, Frank undergoes an evolution of humanity as he begins to strengthen himself physically and mentally; gradually preparing for his inevitable escape. And then, just as he's about to break from his prison--he's released. Given money, a suit and a cellphone, Frank receives a call from a mysterious antagonist informing him that he only has a limited time to discover why it was that he was imprisoned and ultimately set free.

The big problem with Spike Lee's vision (which is oddly enough now labeled a "film" instead of a "joint") is that it feels utterly flavorless and completely inconsequential. Beyond one or two things, Lee has done nothing to truly separate his from Park Chan-Wook's masterpiece. The location for instance isn't set within the industrial confines of a heavily populated city this time around, but New Orleans. However, one would never gauge this from the environments or shot composition. Until I informed my girlfriend otherwise, she believed it was established in New York City. Lee makes NO use of anything more than typical city streets, buildings and alleys to convey the story which negates any characterization the film's locale could have played. Furthering this is Lee's lackadaisical shot formations which additionally dull the film's visuals. Unlike Park Chan Wook's visionary take on such material (in which EVERY shot was akin to its own photograph) Lee's cinematography and camera work are passive, drab and instituted as if they were on stand-by from the outset.

Where Park Chan-Wook commanded the screen with flawless direction, subtle black humor and twisted, yet sustained bouts of brutality, Lee is the exact opposite. There is no poetry to Lee's vision; no delicacy. There are no ruminations on the concept of revenge or meditations on the dilemmas which coincide with such ideals of vigilante justice. Honestly, EVERYTHING that made the original OLDBOY so majestic a film, has been stripped and patch-worked by people with NO concept of why such an ode to revenge worked in the first place.

Take for instance one of the most iconic sequences from the original: the eating of a live octopus. This moment was commemorative in the original due to the REASON it was occurring. It was the first meal following Oh Dae-Su's release and he states to the itamae that he wants to "Eat something alive". It was a grisly and metaphorical moment that foreshadowed the destruction to come. In Lee's, we get to see the octopus in an aquarium. . . Really? That's all? This scene, like many others, feel like Lee elbowing the viewer before winking at them--as if making a desperate attempt to inform the viewer that, "See! I saw the first one too!" Okay, so what did you do with the archetypal material? You just showed it to us again, except this time, you utterly castrated both its shock and meaning.

And then there's the fight. . . You know the one I'm talking about. . . THE fight.

In the original, this dollied sequence of jaw-dropping awesomeness was delivered in a single take that sincerely made the audience feel as though they were watching a real brawl. This solitary moment is an epic feat of filmmaking that deserves to be notarized as one of the best action scenes of all time. It's a instance devoid of elegant choreography, cartoonish colors and CGI. Like the weapon Oh Dae-Su wields, blunt, packs a wallop and is just long enough to get the job done and the point conveyed. The fight carries on in a glorious display of bone-breaking and sees our antihero tripping over fallen instruments of death (unplanned) and even taking a knife to the back. The pitch of dark humor which follows on the elevator furthers the genius of it all.

And then there's Lee's version which feels blatantly choreographed as attackers wait their obvious turns and telegraph their movements from miles away so that Brolin might toss them when need be. Unlike Park's version, in which Oh Dae-Su's death fault plausible, Lee's reinforces that our Joe is practically unstoppable; almost inhuman--an element that it applies and forgets whenever it's convenient for the story (Joe can take on dozens of thugs at once, but fails nearly every time after this to best his attackers? Continuity much?). Lee tries to employ a second level to the duel, but again, it just doesn't really offer anything when the fight feels so fake and organized. The sloppiness of the original's fight WAS one of the many reasons that it was beloved in the first place. Even the ol' "knife in the back" is displayed in such a half-assed way that it's as if Lee shot the scene and forgot to add it and thus, tossed it in at the last moment. And somehow, even the elevator moment has been failed here.

As for the story, those wondering about the original's dark 'lil secret should know that it's all in place here, but feels utterly forced and misguided with an additional piece of grim placed atop it all. Instead of the twist gut-punching the viewer, it feels exaggerated and desperate, as if they were simply trying to one-up the "ick" factor of the original. Worse, is that Sharlto Copley's take on OLDBOY's villain is utterly erroneous and confused. While I dig the actor, his performance and the character he portrays (deemed, "The Stranger") juxtaposes the seriousness with a comical attitude akin to a cartoon villain. His look and demeanor are laughable and his outbursts of violence feel obligatory--not natural.

Portions of Lee's OLDBOY do possess an entertaining factor, but not in the methodical, thinking-man's way. Everything is projected with a typical action mindset that serves only to satisfy the primal aspects of violence and ill-advised intrepidity. Nothing's supposed to have meat or substance. To its credit, Josh Brolin is fantastic as a brooding machine of death searching for redemption. However, where Oh Dae-Su covered the absolute gamut of emotion and exhibited an insane range of catharsis, Brolin seems to have only been instructed to sulk, glare and become angry. Brolin has give it his all, but Lee should have known better than to put the film's weight solely on his shoulders. He needed to actually give a damn too. Hell, not even the word "Oldboy" is even referenced herein or given meaning as it was in the native form.

There's so much wrong with this film beyond the fact that it's a remake. Lee has seemingly directed this film out of pride and to help finance the passion projects he actually wants to do (as some circulating rumors are hinting). OLDBOY was not a film that needed to be remade, nor should anyone have wanted to remake. It was an experience all its own that simply couldn't be replicated. Spielberg knew this. Lee has done nothing to warrant such a revision and has offered nothing artistic or truly compelling with tools he was given. Where Park Chan-Wook's was an exquisitely precise period of punctuation, Lee's is an exclamation point of thoughtless happenstance.

Do you like this review?

Comments (15)

  1. Mr.K

    @bryanyentz I guess.

    1 year agoby @mr-kFlag

  2. Bryan Yentz


    Sadly, after how terrible the theatrical cut of it was, I didn't even want to waste time with the director's version.

    1 year agoby @bryanyentzFlag

  3. Mr.K

    @bryanyentz And the Extended Director's Cut of Total Recall proved to be better than the original version.

    1 year agoby @mr-kFlag

  4. Bryan Yentz


    Exactly, and that flick flopped.

    1 year agoby @bryanyentzFlag

  5. Mr.K

    @bryanyentz And I posted a forum thread about Paul Dini's interview with Kevin Smith. Check it out.

    1 year agoby @mr-kFlag

  6. Mr.K

    @bryanyentz Recuts huh? My guess they really want a safe version of Robocop. Just like what they did with Total Recall.

    1 year agoby @mr-kFlag

  7. Bryan Yentz


    Damn... That is some news...

    I'm wondering if he just realized that he was shooting a sh*tty movie with the remake and upon such realization, was quicker to turn the finger on the studio for the botched mess it was becoming. Even now, I know they're still doing rec-cuts... Nothing bodes well it seems.

    1 year agoby @bryanyentzFlag

  8. Mr.K

    @bryanyentz As for the Robocop remake, prepare to be right again as I found this on Wiki the other day regarding the development of the movie.

    "Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles revealed that Padilha called to him during production to admit he was having "the worst experience of his life" and "for every ten ideas he has, nine are cut". Padilha, according to Meirelles, says, "It is hell here. The film will be good, but I have never suffered so much and I do not want to do it again".

    From what I can understand, it seems that Jose Padhila was not given creative control over the reboot and the director had some interesting ideas that he wanted to include but they wouldn't let him change parts of the script (like making the love interest as a badass cop like in the original and so forth). Talk about a big middle finger to the director huh?

    1 year agoby @mr-kFlag

  9. Mr.K

    @bryanyentz Worst is that Saving Mr.Banks was barely even nominated for anything this year. Also, I'm glad the Oldboy remake sucked ass and the guy deserves a nice firm slap in the head for being a dumbsh*t that had no idea on why the original Oldboy was such a fantastic film (PS: He never watched or read Oldboy as he was too much whining on the whole "racism" crap from Django).

    The good news is that PRISONERS is already out and I'm going to buy it someday. That alongside with Guin Saga, Welcome To The NHK and a few others. Anyway, how's it going with you? Watched any other movies this month?

    1 year agoby @mr-kFlag

  10. Bryan Yentz


    Yeah, I'm not a fan of the guy nor the racist remarks he makes. I understand his relevance, but he needs to shut his mouth and let the camera talk a bit more. I think the controversy surrounding him is stronger than his actual product sometimes and OLDBOY kinda proves that.

    1 year agoby @bryanyentzFlag

  11. Bryan Yentz


    Yeah, just as I predicted... I think movies like PRISONERS are further pushed from the Oscar spotlight because they challenge audiences with grim realities. The film's up for grabs have "Oscar" plainly written all over them--they were made as award films first; narratives second.

    1 year agoby @bryanyentzFlag

  12. Zak Lee Ferguson

    thoughtless happenstance yes he is indeedy

    1 year agoby @Zak-Lee-FergusonFlag

  13. Zak Lee Ferguson

    wannabe "old" fool

    1 year agoby @Zak-Lee-FergusonFlag

  14. Zak Lee Ferguson

    @bryanyentz i am quite Lee phobic as his features are all preachy and race related and i feel they dont say anything but the common white man should suffer, and i think hes a very biased angry man, who feels conflicted by the acts right and is just a bitter fool who has studio satisfaction, and in tone and filmography and genre this is a leap.....and it fails....i would say stick to the preachy angry works he does ....but then they are worthless pieces of tosh to begin with. Park Chans work should have been left, but then this is Lee's "angry Americana" film not "we hate white people" film. Hope i make sense from this all. His films are all but pitiful and show who he is, a bitter old fool

    1 year agoby @Zak-Lee-FergusonFlag

  15. Mr.K

    @bryanyentz Agreed. This remake was utterly pointless and honestly, it's just for Spike Lee to make a "safe" version of the original masterpiece. Sorry Lee but you don't have the balls to do something interesting and risky like Tarantino did with Django Unchained.

    Oh and Bryan, you were right. Prisoners didn't get nominated for everything in the Golden Globes. :(

    1 year agoby @mr-kFlag