Movie Reviews

‘Oldboy’: Just as brilliant as the original

By Hidzir JunainiMovies - 28 November 2013 12:00 AM

‘Oldboy’: Just as brilliant as the original

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Rating: 4 / 5 

Nine years ago, South Korean auteur Park Chan-wook unveiled a masterpiece of revenge and punishment to astounding acclaim. 

‘Oldboy’ left viewers both repulsed and riveted by its Greek tragedy and nightmarish psychology, earning status as a cult favourite and bagging the coveted Grand Prix at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival along the way. 

Under normal circumstances, the thought of Hollywood remaking such an extraordinary film for an American audience would sound like blasphemy. 

Remakes in general are thought of as lazy or uncreative because studios are simply recycling an existing recipe with English language ingredients. 

But with Spike Lee at the helm of this ‘Oldboy’ interpretation, well, the storied director of ‘Malcolm X’ (1992) and ‘Do the Right Thing’ (1989) certainly has enough goodwill to earn himself the benefit of the doubt. 

Read also: 4 coolest Korean filmmakers you need to know 

So how does the 2013 version stack up with 2004’s? 

To our relief, brilliantly well. 

If you’ve never seen the Korean original, you will be blown away.

Josh Brolin and Elizabeth Olsen star in 'Oldboy'

And even if you have, there is enough meat here for you to chew on anyways. You might know what is coming, but the suspense, performances and sly deviations will keep you on the edge of your seat nevertheless. 

Amazingly, Lee has successfully found a great spin on the story without losing the sadistic spirit of Park’s vision.

Placing this alongside Matt Reeves’ ‘Let Me In’ (2010) and David Fincher’s ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ (2011), we bet people are starting to rethink their blanket aversion to Hollywood remakes.

Read also: InSing Movies interviews Park Chan-Wook 

This adaptation tells the story of Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin), a selfish and vile man who is mysteriously abducted. Neither he nor the viewers know who is behind this or why he is being imprisoned, but we can tell that this is a despicable man who probably had it coming.

Joe learns via television that he has been framed for the rape and murder of his wife, and it is this shock coupled with his desire to make amends with his orphaned daughter Mia that turns him around.

Spike Lee's remake is just as violent as the original

He begins writing letters to his daughter that serves both as a confessional and a journal, while simultaneously getting in shape. 

Two decades are spent building up his body, endurance and fighting prowess, and the results are quite startling.

Brolin’s transformation from the flabby figure in the movie’s opening scenes to a well-muscled killing machine is nothing short of remarkable, akin to Tom Hanks’ physical commitment in ‘Cast Away’.

Lee chooses to focus more on Joe’s past and incarceration more than Park, and this is where Brolin’s performance truly shines. His journey from an alcoholic degenerate to a remorseful and focused individual is nicely defined and quite believable. 

Eventually, Joe is mysteriously released and this is where the real narrative fun begins. He is forced to race against time to figure out his captor’s identity and agenda before Mia is murdered.

He gets help from his childhood friend Chucky (Michael Imperioli) and a nurse named Marie Sebastian (Elizabeth Olsen). 

Besides Brolin, Olsen is this film’s other standout, delivering a compassionate and attention-grabbing performance that should propel her from an indie darling into the world of summer blockbusters. (She has already signed on to ‘Godzilla’ and ‘The Avengers: Age of Ultron’).

The plot is naturally tweaked, but rest assured, the twist ending is intact.

Fans of the 2004 version will still get queasy, but those who aren’t familiar will outright lose their lunch. And we mean that in the best, most courteous way possible.

Iconic scenes from the original, such as the hammer-happy hallway fight sequence, are updated with clever variations. And ultimately, it is these touches that keeps Lee’s version from simply being a facsimile. 

‘Oldboy’ opens in cinemas 28 November 2013  


Have you watched the original 'Oldboy'? What do you think of Spike Lee's version? Post your comments below

Formerly the Music Editor of JUICE Magazine, Hidzir Junaini is now a writing ronin by day and vampire slayer by night. Subsisting only on coffee and naivety, the 27-year-old scribe aspires to finally complete his long-gestating novel to lukewarm reviews some time in the near future. Until then, he can be found writing about film, music, nightlife and television with the misplaced confidence unique to most Mass Communications graduates.