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'Oldboy' review: A violent caricature remake that cuts memorable scenes

Spike Lee on the Oscar red carpet.
Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images

Oldboy (2013)


Awesome movies are sometimes made in foreign markets. Unfortunately, not enough American audiences see them, so these films are occasionally remade in English (a popular example: “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”). Director Spike Lee recognized the craze behind Korean film “Oldboy” and recently remade it with Josh Brolin in the lead role, but his presentation changes some of the most memorable moments from the original film that earned its cult classic status.

After a drunken, poorly behaved evening, Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) disappears from society. He has been kidnapped and placed in a kind of prison in the appearance of a hotel room. Trapped for twenty years, Joe has no idea who arranged his torment or for what purpose but watches time pass on a TV (obviously focusing on Spike Lee’s interest in events) and finds himself accused of murder. Also, he watches interviews of his daughter and her adoptive parents. Joe eventually begins to better himself by exercising and giving up alcohol. When his twenty year sentence ends, Joe is curiously freed and finds help in the form of a young aid worker/nurse, Marie Sebastian (Elizabeth Olsen). But Joe quickly learns that his freedom is just another part of the game of vengeance arranged by his captor. Joe then must solve the puzzle of where he was kept in order to find his captor and, even more important, realize his past mistake that inspired his punishment.

The original film, by Chan-wook Park, has a very different style compared to Spike Lee’s more modern presentation ten years later. Chan-wook Park’s gritty film had a dirtier feel, as if the audience was witnessing a private horror story. Lee’s “Oldboy” has bright, popping colors and great visuals, but it emphasizes the unreality of the tale. Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography is the only improvement in the remake, but his imagery is too attention seeking to allow the craziness to dominate on its own. Also, Lee’s villain in the form of the usually wonderful Sharlto Copley is an offensively stereotypical gay man depicted as extra slimy and perverted. In the original, you actually feel a smidgeon of sorrow for the captor.

Comparing the two, it is unclear what motivates Spike Lee’s remake. Most of the film feels choppy, as if much was left on the cutting room floor, so the story lacks drive. References to the original are constant, especially the most memorable scenes (the squid, toy wings), but Lee refuses to use them as plot devices. Their presence is a wink to fans of the original, but they actually become frustrating as they serve no purpose other than to remind us of the original, demanding a comparison. What is left is the violence and grotesqueness of the story, exaggerated and embraced in Lee’s vision. Whether or not the film is worth seeing boils down to this: do you want to see Josh Brolin beat up a ton of guys with a hammer and his fists?

Rating for Spike Lee’s “Oldboy:” C-

Rating for Chan-wook Park’s “Oldboy:” A- (beware: it contains the grossest scene this viewer has ever witnessed)

For more information on Lee’s film or to view its trailer, click here.

Lee’s “Oldboy” was released on blu-ray and DVD earlier this month.

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