Film Review Mystery

Avenge this Film Review: Oldboy (2013)

November 27, 2013Ben MK

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Spike Lee tries to teach an Oldboy new tricks

Remakes are a tricky business: stray too far from the source material and risk alienating the fans of the original, yet stick too close and it all becomes moot. Arriving ten years after the landmark South Korean film that put director Park Chan-wook on the map, Spike Lee's Oldboy remake is as high profile as they come. It tries to make Oldboy new again; but could it live up to, or possibly even surpass, its predecessor? Like Josh Brolin's character in the film, to find out the answer, you need to know where to look.

For those unfamiliar with the original Oldboy, it's the story of a man who, for reasons he must discover on his own, is imprisoned in the same room for years and then, just as abruptly and inexplicably, freed one day to exact his revenge. In Park Chan-wook's original, that man was Oh Dae-su. In Spike Lee's version, that man is Joseph Doucett (Brolin) -- an extremely unlikeable and ego-centric ad executive with an ex-wife, a three-year-old daughter and a drinking problem -- who awakens from a drunken stupor to find himself trapped in a mysterious, windowless room, completely cut off from everyone and everything. With no means of communicating with anyone beyond the walls of his confine, his only knowledge of the goings-on in the outside world comes from television. Through television, he learns that he's been framed for the murder of his ex-wife, and through television he watches his daughter, Mia, grow up. Vowing to make amends with Mia and clear his name, his release twenty years later sees him embark on a mission to find her and to find the reasons behind his internment. Aided by a young aid worker named Marie (Elizabeth Olsen), little does he know that the journey will take him to the deepest and darkest depths of his soul.

Superficially, Lee's Oldboy appears to have much in common with Park's film; but there's a fundamental difference that significantly alters its tone, when viewed alongside the original. In Park's film, Dae-su was primarily bent on vengeance upon his release; in Lee's version, vengeance is certainly a motivator for Joe, but it's not his primary goal. This detail sometimes get forgotten as events unfold with bombast, but it flips the entire nature of the film on its head. Perhaps it's due to the way that Lee's film is structured (with Joe undergoing more of a character change early on in the film, during his imprisonment), but it's a major change that the film no longer feels like it's primarily an exploration of the nature of vengeance. This change even extends to the villain's motivations, which are now as much about gaining a perverted sense of empathy from Joe as it is about revenge. Instead of playing out as a noir revenge thriller, Lee's film is more of a straightforward mystery thriller. In some ways, it even feels inspired by The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (either the American or Swedish version, take your pick) -- because, like that film, there's a deep, dark and twisted family secret that lies at the heart of Lee's film.

But Lee hasn't abandoned the template of the original completely. Fans of Park's film will be glad to know that there is still more than enough violence and gore to go around, and there are plenty of nods to the original peppered throughout Oldboy's runtime. From the obvious callbacks -- the side-scrolling fight scene (complete with a knife in the back), the hammer as Joe's weapon of choice, that "Dragon" restaurant and Evergreen Academy -- to the more subtle references -- the angel wings on a street vendor and a squid in an aquarium -- there is a treasure trove for fans to rediscover and revel in here. And although Lee's film eschews the voiceover narration of the original, it does retain the infamous twist. Because, let's face it, it wouldn't be Oldboy without that disturbing twist.

The Bottom Line

Spike Lee's Oldboy is fundamentally different from Park Chan-wook's Oldboy. Less of a noir voyage into the nature of vengeance and more of a mystery thriller with an aspect of revenge, it starts out along the same path as the original but diverges more and more as the story progresses. Despite hitting some of the same beats along the way, it carves out its own niche and doesn't feel like the same film at its core. It certainly tries to honor the intentions of the original while trying something different, but how audiences respond to it may depend on how much the first one has endeared itself to them. [★★★]

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