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Remaking Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy was a no-win proposition. For the dedicated fans, it could never be good enough, while the title doesn’t exactly have name brand value. To salve some fanboys complaints, Spike Lee was brought in to direct, and Josh Brolin stars in this Americanized adaptation that may not live up to the original, but does offer some modest pleasures (though will surely be best appreciated by those unfamiliar with the original).

The Players:

The Plot:

Joe Doucett (Brolin) is a drunk, and a terrible human being who is failing at work, as a father and at life. Then one day he’s kidnapped and locked in a room for twenty years, with only a television and Chinese food for company, while his ex-wife was murdered and Joe was blamed for the crime. But after twenty years he’s trained himself to be a total badass and is ready to either get revenge or apologize for whatever wrong he did, when he’s just as mysteriously let go. It turns out that Adrian (Copley) won’t tell him why he’s been imprisoned — he wants Joe to figure it out for himself, which he tries to with the help of old friend Chucky (Michael Imperioli) and Marie Sebastian (Olsen), a friendly nurse who helps Joe out of sympathy.

The Good:

  • The Story: The original Oldboy is a masterpiece, full stop. But removed from some of the original elements, the film works because it’s a strange and interesting tale of revenge. It may point out that the original got over more on style than substance, but the mystery and the final reveal pack a punch in both versions.
  • The Little Things: This plays like a punk rock cover of a Beatles song. In some ways it doesn’t work because the redo highlights the cover’s lack of formal brilliance, but this version also has an energy to it. It’s a tighter film, and as Josh Brolin said, it’s the more character driven of the two. The film does skew in different directions from the original, but it also maintains the same basic structure and content. And so it’s the small details that are there to personalize it that make it interesting.

The So-So:

  • Tone: Though the film goes big toward the end, it often feels like the film is in different worlds from time to time. Copley’s Adrian is a weirdo, and so is Samuel L. Jackson’s warden character Chaney, but because they’re going more flamboyant, they stick out, as Brolin plays it on the level. But it’s hard not to wish the film would take it even further as it seems to want to embrace the highs and possibly campy elements of the story, but then shies away from them at the last minute.

The Bad:

  • Not Enough Days: The original is a visually precise movie, a very sharp and explosive film that wows with its design and choices. 2013′s Oldboy seems like a movie that had a locked schedule, and a small budget for what it is, and though there is good in it, it doesn’t feel like director Spike Lee is pulling out all the stops. Instead it feels less personal and more about getting it done and so there’s nothing about it that feels of his world (other than maybe Jackson). And where Inside Man saw Spike able to make a studio film that both worked as a Hollywood film and a Spike Lee joint, here he seems at the service of the material, or at least getting everything he needed more than making it his own.

The Unfair:

  • The Original: I’ve seen it. 99% of America hasn’t. The film is partly about the reveals in the third act, and I knew what they were. Most audiences don’t. Will the film work on people who don’t know the original? All evidence is yes. And it’s fun to watch this film with people who don’t know its twists and turns. If you haven’t seen the original, you should, but for those who have no idea what they’re in for are going to have a totally different experience, and it will be a movie they’ll never forget.

Overall:

Just in time for the holidays, Oldboy is a dark movie that is uncompromising, but can’t stand next to the original. Oh well.

Rating: 6.5/10

Oldboy opens in limited release November 27, and may expand shortly thereafter.

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