FEARNET Movie Review: 'Oldboy' (2013)


Let's get a few things out of the way right now. We'll call them "universal movie geek truths."

A. Chan wook-Park's Oldboy (2003) is one of the most original, shocking, outrageous, and darkly entertaining "revenge thrillers" you'd ever want to see.
B. When a foreign language film ("foreign" being "not English," of course) makes a mark --  at festivals, with global audiences, or among serious movie buffs -- then it only stands to reason that, once the original version runs out of steam, someone will toss out the idea of doing an English-language remake. It could be a completely financial motivation, a sincerely creative one, or a combination of both -- but that's how these remakes happen.
C. Director Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing), screenwriter Mark Protosevich (The Cell), and leading man Josh Brolin (True Grit) are pretty strange choices for a remake of a bleak and disturbing Korean film... but strange is not necessarily a bad thing.
D. The most important of all: any film, be it a remake, sequel, prequel, or rip-off, deserves to be judged on its own merits. The fact that the original Oldboy is supremely cool means we, the movie geeks, like to act protective. But that film isn't going anywhere. A movie is a movie, and you know what?
Despite all of the angry complaints about this "pointless" remake, despite how its distributor pretty much dumped the film into theaters, and despite how badly the new Oldboy did at the box office... it's a pretty good movie!
Chalk it up to an example of how veteran filmmakers can salvage even the strangest of projects, or dismiss it as inordinately low expectations on the part of yours truly, but I don't think it's an insult to Chan Wook Park to say that Spike Lee "Americanizes" Oldboy in a slick, twisted, and darkly compelling fashion. Fair is fair, and only a fool would dismiss Roque Banos excellent score or Sean Bobbitt's sincerely impressive cinematography just because they like "the original" better.
This new version of Oldboy also offers fine support work from the likes of Elizabeth Olsen, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Imperioli, and the scene-stealingly weird Sharlto Copley; it sticks pretty close to the plot of the original film while also finding ways to deviate (and streamline) things for a new audience; and it offers one powerfully impressive performance from Josh Brolin, who may never end up being a movie star, but is always a leading man worth watching. 
For those who don't know the story, here's the very short version: a sleazy advertising executive named Joe gets locked in a cell that looks like a hotel room -- for twenty years. He doesn't know why, and neither does the viewer, and it's the grim film noir vibe of the story that makes Oldboy so fascinating. (And partially explains why people like the premise enough to present it a second time.) Eventually Joe does escape his bizarre cage, and of course he immediately starts tracking down clues as to who would punish him in such bizarre and merciless fashion.
And that's when Oldboy, either version, starts to get really interesting. It's Brolin who keeps the movie afloat through the most redundant or unnecessary scenes (an ill-conceived copy of the original film's infamous "hammer battle" is generally unimpressive), but, to its credit, the screenplay's third act throws in some new wrinkles that never "improve" upon the original, but do manage to work well enough in their own right.
It always seems a bit unfair that covers of rock songs are generally appreciated while movie remakes are often dismissed as cynical junk. Oldboy is simply a cool cover of a great song, no more and no less.