Judge Gordon Sullivan has been hanging out in a Spike Lee joint.
Ask not why you were imprisoned. Ask why you were set free.
Whatever one might be tempted to say about Spike Lee, no one can take away from him the fact that he made a stone-classic film in Do the Right Thing, with Malcolm X trailing only a little bit behind in terms of brilliance. What's less acknowledged, however, is the fact that Lee is a competent journeyman filmmaker when he's not directing racially charged, socially conscious cinema. Films like 25th Hour and Inside Man show that he can keep a film interesting without an overt investment in politics. With that in mind, it's not as completely bizarre as it first seems that Lee would remake Oldboy. "From the director of Bamboozled" would look odd on the cover of this film, but "From the director of Inside Man" makes a certain amount of sense. Sadly, though, Oldboy is one of the more disappointing entries in Lee's impressive filmography.
Facts of the Case
Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin, W.) is walking home drunk one night when he finds himself kidnapped and then trapped in a room. Though he's fed regularly and given access to a TV (from which he learns of the death of his wife), he has nothing else do to. Gradually he decides to train himself to fight, hoping to break free and seek his revenge. Instead, he's let free randomly, after twenty years. After being set free, he's told that if he can find out who imprisoned him within a few days, his captor will reunite Joe with his daughter before killing himself. Along the way, Joe gets help from a nurse (Elizabeth Olsen, Martha Marcy May Marlene) as he tries to find his captor.
I know it's a minor heresy, but I'm not a huge fan of the original Oldboy. I think that the plot is perfect for a thriller: give a guy the perfect reason for revenge, give him the time to train and hone his anger before unleashing him on the bad guys. There are two problems with both the original film and this remake. The first is that the extremity of the treatment meted out to Da-Seu/Joe must be in response to a terrible crime in his past. Once the reveal happens (which I won't spoil), I was left with a "eh" feeling. There's some nasty stuff in his past to be sure, but twenty years' worth of imprisonment and psychological torture is a bit extreme for the crimes, leaving the endings of both films feeling hollow.
Perhaps even more significantly, though the plot is perfect for a taut thriller, neither film goes the route of the tightly orchestrated thriller. Though this Oldboy is 15 minutes shorter than the original, both films suffer from excessive length. I assume the idea is to give more character development to increase both the psychological aspects of the torture and to give the ending more impact. Instead this extra length just prolongs the inevitable showdown needlessly. When you have an engine as beautiful as the plot for Oldboy, you don't tie it to a mountain of character development hoping it'll work out.
Even if you loved the original Oldboy, there's very little to tempt you to enjoy Lee's remake. To whatever sins you find in the original (like the lame ending), this Oldboy adds the sin of always feeling "been there, done that." Though the violence is impressive in its execution, it feels very much like sound and fury, signifying nothing. It's all surface, and not in a slick, casual way but in that way that makes it seem like everyone is going through the motions without really meaning it. Its especially disappointing given the length of the film that it doesn't feel like it goes beyond the bare minimum.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
What I did not expect from Lee, and what impresses me about Oldboy is the violence and its staging. I was surprised that Lee would remake Oldboy, not because of its controversial content, but because it's famous for its brutally executed and exquisitely choreographed fight scenes. The fight scene in the hallway has justifiably become famous, and there's little in Lee's previous filmography that points to his facility with either brutality or slickly shot violence (maybe there are hints in the war scenes of Miracle at St. Anna's or the personal violence in 25th Hour, but neither of those are anywhere near Oldboy-level). Surprisingly, Lee brings it when it comes time to unleash Joe on those who stand in between him and revenge. Brolin has always looked a bit of a bruiser, and he gets to let it all go here, brawling with intent and malice. Those looking for a bit of the ol' ultra-violence could do worse than Oldboy, even if those pleasures don't come as consistently as they could.
I also can't knock the performances of the actors. Despite the film's attempts at development, their characters aren't that three-dimensional, leaving the actors to play things pretty big. They rise to the occasion, with Josh Brolin at his most-menacing best. Elizabeth Olsen radiates vulnerability and toughness in equal measure, and a smaller role from Samuel L. Jackson gives him time to relish a few lines. Overall, the cast is the really appealing thing about Oldboy, even if they deserve a better picture to be in.
Oldboy (Blu-ray) is also decent. The 2.40:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer is really strong. Detail is great in close-ups, and all the blood spatter is visible once things get rough. Colors are intentionally muted in some cases, but black levels are deep and consistent. The overall look starts out rather grim and slowly opens up, so final scenes showcase a bit more polish than earlier ones. Overall, though, the film is highly watchable. The film's DTS-HD 5.1 track is even more impressive. Dialogue is clean and clear from the front, but the real star of this track is the sound design during fight sequences. Directionality, clarity, and dynamic range are all excellent.
Extras start with one alternate and three extended scenes and include a trio of featurettes that cover the making of the film, as well as the details of Brolin's transformation for the role. There's also a montage of workout scenes from the film. An Ultraviolet Digital Copy is also included.
Oldboy is a hard movie to defend. Those inclined to like its mix of brutality and shocking secrets will be better served by the original, while fans of the original will find little worth praising in this version. Those who don't want lots of violence should steer. The curious will find Oldboy (Blu-ray) solid should they decide to rent or buy the film.
Guilty of being unnecessary.
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