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The original South Korean version of Oldboy is a deserved cult classic, a dark and twisted affair from Park Chan-wook. Fans of the original were hostile to even the idea of an American remake and Spike Lee’s version fails to win over the doubters.
In 1993 Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) is an alcoholic advertising executive who has a remarkable ability to piss off everyone he meets. After losing his firm to a major client, he is kidnapped and imprisoned in a strange hotel room. During his incarceration, Joe is framed for the brutal rape and murder of his ex-wife and his daughter is adopted by another family. Swearing revenge Joe gives up the booze, gets fit and 20 years later he is suddenly released by his captors. Joe’s only allies are his old friend Chucky (Michael Imperioli) and a young nurse, Marie (Elizabeth Olsen) as a mysterious British man (Sharlto Copley) taunts him.
The remake of Oldboy is a very brutal flick, willing to be a violent movie with its fights, torture sequences and use of weaponry. Brolin is convincing in the part as Joe, physical and hate-filled as he fights his way through thugs. The fight choreography was satisfying, including this version’s hammer fight: it’s not as strong and certainly not as raw as the original, but it’s a well done sequence. At least the remake is not a watered down version on the violence and sex front.
Brolin and Olsen are very good in their respective roles. Brolin ably plays Joe as the jackass extraordinaire early on in the movie (though it is unbelievable for him to play the 20-years younger version of himself). He was excellent when in solitary confinement and this is one of the better parts of the screenplay by Mark Protosevich, who also wrote I Am Legend. Brolin was relentless as Joe as he seeks answers and revenge, he is also a commanding presence. Olsen shows off her talent as a caring woman with issues who takes on lost cases.
The remake of Oldboy suffers from an identity crisis: half of the movie wants to be a serious, dark thriller of the mold of David Fincher and the other half wants to be a Tarantino-esque genre flick. Brolin and Olsen are more grounded with their roles while Copley and Samuel L. Jackson are more larger than life characters and ham it up. The world that is set up is realistic, but it suffers from absurd moments, like Joe following a car while riding a brightly colored bicycle and The Strangler having a scantily clad female martial artist as his main henchman. Neither mesh together.
Copley plays his character as a very campy upper-class Englishman and he is dreadful. He is an extremely mincing villain, softly spoken, having fey mannerisms and doing one of the worst attempts at an English accents in a long time. The Stranger is neither interesting nor threatening and when his past is finally revealed it felt more like Lee and Protosevich were trying to outdo the original’s controversy.
The original was a creative, tightly made thriller that had few holes. Park Chan-wook gave his version a slight surreal quality. There were moments of dark humor and Oh Dae-su was unhinged after his ordeal. Lee’s version is more grounded and Joe is a very focused character, which leads to questions like how would the Stranger know which hotel characters would be in and have cameras ready to watch them? How could the Stranger have such an elaborate operation without somebody spilling the beans? Why does Jackson’s gang not use guns and just use a variety of sharp and blunt instruments in America? There are some nice little touches such as Joe getting use to modern technology, but the screenplay is lacking in thought as they translate the original.
Lee and Brolin were both unhappy with the final film with the studio cutting the movie from 140 minutes to 105 minutes. Maybe the Director’s Cut is better, but the version that is available now is a subpar movie. Stick to the Korean original.