Raiding Asian cinema is nothing new for Hollywood. Some of the most famous examples are clearly the likes of The Ring and The Grudge. Indeed, these films introduced many to the wonders of Asian horror and Asian storytelling. Now we regularly see adaptations of Far Eastern cinema being adapted for us. No, we’re not going to count 47 Ronin. There’s a difference between aping an Asian style and straight-up translating it for Western audiences. So, on to Hollywood’s latest attempt to steal some of Asia’s thunder with a remake of 2003’s Oldboy – the tale about a guy that gets locked in a room for numerous years (15 if you’re into the Korean version, 20 if you’re into the US version), before being released. Vengeance is his for the taking as he tries to piece together why the hell he was imprisoned… but should Oldboy have remained locked in the room indefinitely? Let’s have a peek through the keyhole…
To be honest, the plot’s already summed up for you there. There’s not much more to Spike Lee‘s reimagining of Chan-wook Park‘s original. This time, the focus is squarely on “Joe Ducett”, played by Josh Brolin. A drunkard, no-hope father who’s more concerned with getting drunk and womanising than he is with looking after his little girl. So, Joe’s a little perplexed when he wakes up in a sealed room and is plied with vodka and dumplings on a daily basis. Oh, add into that the fact that he’s framed perfectly for the rape and murder of his estranged wife. So, some 20 years later, Joe is released back into the public with a lot of questions and an urgent need to clear his name… Which leads him to a variety of nefarious ne’er do wells, including characters (I won’t spoil anything) portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson and Sharlto Copley.
I’ll make a confession: I’ve not seen the original Oldboy. I know, I know: “it’s a classic”, “how can you review this if you haven’t seen the original”, “your verdict is USELESS you HACK”… some of those criticisms are valid, and I am indeed a hack. Nor have I read the graphic novel it’s based on either… But I’m now able to judge this version of Oldboy purely on its merits and not some sentimental view of a 10 year old film. I therefore can’t comment on what’s missing / what’s included. I can just comment on what works… and what really, really doesn’t.
Let’s start with the good shall we? The plot. The plot is an interesting concept and is clearly Asian in origin. It did remind me a little of Stephen King’s 1408 insofar that there’s a sense of desperation at being locked inside a room. It also had that torture edge to it that we’ve all become so accustomed to at the cinema in recent years. But then it swirls in the whole revenge angle. This is the type of role that Josh Brolin excels at. He just LOOKS mean and moody all the time in the same way that Ron Perlman looks like he’d break your teeth with a baseball bat. Or play a pirate monkey in Ice Age 4 (we still can’t believe he wasn’t that character!). Physically, Brolin is imposing and does the role justice in our opinion. Similarly, Samuel L. Jackson is bankable and clearly loves lapping it up as a villain. Though thankfully, he doesn’t do it to the same abominable degree that he does in The Spirit.
Similarly, the pacing is frantic and keeps you intrigued. It doesn’t slow down and constantly swirls and lashes at you as the film progresses. We liked this. What we didn’t like though were some of the hammy choreography in those fight scenes.
Oldboy is a suitably violent film. The body count is high and there’s a good deal of gore / torture to be seen here. Not quite Ichi The Killer levels of gore, but enough of it. Therefore there’s an urgent need for fighting and violence. Some of this works and has the shock value… but some is just so out-of-place and forced. Notably the moments after Joe is released from his confines – the first fight with the football jocks. Why? Why that level of violence? It’s uncharacteristic. Add to that some of the single-framed fights that looked more like a Broadway musical / Benny Hill sketch than anything else. It’s admirable to lock the camera in one place for us to watch what unfolds as opposed to the horrid use of shakey-handicam footage that plagues cinematic fights nowadays. But it felt too rehearsed / video game esque. It just didn’t work.
Now, what was the biggest flaw with this film is actually down to personal preference / favouritism. We’re massive fans of Sharlto Copley at Film Phage. We loved him in District 9, Elysium and even The A Team. No doubt he’ll also be fantastic in Chappie next year. But what’s with that accent Sharlto? You’re South African… why does your villain need to be hammy and English? As a Brit, the accent just grated with me somewhat. Why Spike Lee felt it necessary to have Copley‘s character be British is beyond me. Oh, is it because he’s “posh”? Or is it because of… what… unfolds? I have no idea. Copley himself acts well and had me captivated, so it’s no slight against his acting capabilities. It’s just that damn accent!
That sounds rather shallow of me doesn’t it? To say that an accent is the reason that the film doesn’t hit the giddy high notes? It’s actually symptomatic of the main problem with this film: it’s unnatural and forced. Some things don’t make sense: love interests developing so rapidly, random violence, THAT accent… the list goes on. It might make sense in Asian cinema, but it didn’t really fit here.
Oldboy is far from a bad film, but it’s also far from a great film. The plot and narrative is its strongest suit. It ably works as a mystery / thriller that has you guessing up until the final beats, but this was already going to be the case based on its source material. Indeed, if you’re familiar with Oldboy‘s plotting, I’m unsure of what pleasure you’ll derive from this, spare an update to 2013 technology (they use iPhones) and the obvious benefit of no need for subtitles…
Whilst not the finest adaptation of Asian cinema, Oldboy is serviceable and will satisfy a moviegoing audience seeking an 18 rated film at a time when animation and family films are King at the box office. Oldboy isn’t a Christmas film; that much is for sure. Unless Santa’d been the one subjected to imprisonment. Then you could have the title as “Oldboy Santa: He Knows If You’ve Been Naughty or Nice”, then have a photo of him covered in tattoos, or like the cover of Bronson, but meaner. Actually, I really want to see that film… someone go write it! He’s coming for you Easter Bunny; he knows it was you, you little bitch…