Film Review – Old Boy (2014)

We saw Wolfpaw’s review of the original, now, out this week on DVD, Lisa Fremont in defence of the remake of Old Boy…

Now, who on earth would have the nerve to remake the Chan-wook Park classic Oldboy?

Spike Lee. That is who would believe that he can take a well beloved film, reinterpret it for another culture, put his spin on it and, somehow, maintain the integrity of the original. I am well aware that I am in the minority when it comes to believing that Lee managed to do just that. Yes, I have seen the original; many times and it never loses it’s impact on me. I cry every. single. time. I watch Oldboy. No, I am not a fan of Spike Lee. Frankly, I cannot think of another director who seems less suited to take this remake on. I watched Chan-wook Park’s Oldboy the night before I went to the first showing of Spike Lee’s Oldboy. I was completely refreshed on all of the nuances of the original and as open minded as a human being can be walking into a remake of a movie that you love that is being directed by someone whom you’ve never really cared for. For good measure, I even dragged along a friend who had absolutely no knowledge of what they were about to see.

Right from the opening credits, the colors are vibrant. Joe Ducet (Josh Brolin) is immediately introduced as an alcoholic who is on his last legs in all areas of his life. His ex-wife calls to remind him that he will be missing his 3 year old daughter’s birthday, but Joe is more interested in his client meeting that evening than the birthday party. The meeting does not go as planned and it is Joe’s subsequent descent into an alcohol infused pity party where he runs into the mysterious woman carrying the bright yellow umbrella with the bright red slashes printed on it.

He then wakes up in what,initially, looks like a cheap motel room, but is, in fact, his new home for the next 20 years. Joe is fed three times a day and has a television that keeps him updated on what is going on in the outside world. It is through the television that he learns of Donna Hawthorne. Donna is Joe’s ex wife and she has been found savagely raped and beaten to death and the evidence is irrefutable; Joseph Ducet is the killer. How can that be if he’s been locked in this room?

Joe is slowly broken down to a shell of a human being. He makes a friend out of a pillowcase and, eventually, tries to kill himself. Oy. How man times does it need to be explained? If you’re going to slit your wrists, IT’S DOWN THE ROAD, NOT ACROSS THE STREET! Get it straight, Hollywood. Anyway, he wakes up with a fresh haircut and shave, his wound taken care of and wearing clean clothes; he then finally finds the cameras in the room that have been watching him. One day, he sees something on television that inspires him to clean up his act and find a way out of this hell hole.

The visual of Joe waking up in that luggage trunk in the middle of a field is gorgeous. Everything is so bright and vivid; especially the mysterious woman with the yellow umbrella. An altercation with some random athletes illustrates how Joe has turned himself into a lean, mean, fighting and killing machine. Dressed in all black, Joe cuts a severe visual in an otherwise colorful world. He meets a caring young woman, Maire (Elizabeth Olsen) who feels compelled to take care of him. Through some clever detective work he figures out where he had been staying for two decades. So, he steals a hammer, follows a car and breaks into the place where he had been held for all of those lost years. We all know what happens from here.

I really enjoyed the torture scene with Samuel L. Jackson; the lighting is subdued with an overall blue hue, but Jackson’s red shirt and his blood are very vibrant. It is a wince inducing scene made even more uncomfortable by the sheer pleasure visible on Brolin’s face. As the tension builds, you are eagerly and hesitantly awaiting the epic hammer fight scene. Will it be as good as the original? No. Fucking. Way. That being said, if you have never seen the original, this is a great fight scene; it operates on three different levels, literally, with great precision, choreography and just the right amount of violence. Joe is super human, but not to the point where it feels more of a joke. Nope, Joe is just a badass dude on a mission fueled by revenge and I pity the fool who gets in his way.

Alright, so how does Joe’s torture scene play out in this version? It doesn’t. Sorry, but no impromptu dental work in this film.

The major plot points of the story are kept intact, but they have been altered. Specifically, they have been Americanized. While this seems to be the biggest complaint about the film, I really don’t see how it could have been done much differently. The hypnosis and Buddhist themes would never be accepted as legitimate story lines or realistic devices in our culture. We are a culture weened on and shaped by television. It is so much more believable that we would respond better to a man who has been fed a story from a news magazine show than hypnosis.

Joe mentions that every time his phone rings, it’s the same song; in this version, the song is not initiating a hypnotic response, but is a clue as to who is behind all of this. Makes sense to me. Think about it for a moment; would you really believe that a specific ringtone would send you into a pre planned reaction? We are much more willing to accept this from a foreign film because we aren’t necessarily intimate with all the intricacies of their culture. As Americans, we don’t tend to swallow the hypnotism pill very easily, if at all.

“Isn’t it amazing? People just believe whatever they see on television.”

I know, I know, what about the big reveal? Does it measure up? Not a chance in hell. Again, this all boils down to cultural differences. Brolin does an outstanding job of emotionally breaking down as the reality of the situation hits him, but it is nowhere near the emotional gut wrenching tongue slicing that we get in the original. The ending of the film is, of course, Americanized as well. Ultimately, both films end the same way; a good father will put his daughter first and that is what is done in both stories, albeit, in much different ways.

Sharlto Copley has been taken to task by some as being a bit too over the top in his role. As the man behind this entire scheme, it is the near cartoonishness of his character that I enjoy the most. In the original, the man pulling the strings is very cool, calm and collected in his designer suits and perfectly coiffed hair. Copley is as well, but he has a tinge of Bond Villain mixed in; I find that this suits the character and the film quite nicely. Again, we are a culture brought up on “wacky villains” and this is a lot easier to buy. If you are the kind of person who spends your entire life building the downfall of another man, I have a hard time believing that you wouldn’t be mildly eccentric. This isn’t just revenge that he is after; this is a whole other level of misery and comeuppance.

I truly believe in my heart of hearts, that if you can momentarily forget the brilliance that is the Chan-wook Park film, Spike Lee did a solid job of translating this beautiful and sad tale of revenge. The movie looks gorgeous and Brolin really is a fantastic actor. Sure, the ultimate story behind Copley’s character is a bit much, but this entire story is a bit much. Twenty years!! That is a lot of dedication to your anger. The whole premise insists that you check some of your logic at the door and just enjoy the ride. Brolin was easy to invest in and Olsen did a great job with what little she had to work with. I love the characters, I love the pacing, I love the fight sequence and I absolutely adore the way the film looks. The colors are an absolute jewel box of sadness and violence. Oldboy is still a tragically beautiful story of love, loss, anger and revenge and that translates into all cultures. So, a lover of the the original film and the newbie sitting next to them were both pleasantly surprised by how we were both left broken hearted by this story.

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Image from Amazon


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