“Oldboy” Proves To Be Dull, Sadistic Remake
The Film Dispenser team selected me to review Spike Lee’s Oldboy because I have never seen the original 2003 Korean film of the same name. I was a blank slate entering the movie theater. I would not be tainted in anyway by my mental comparisons to the original film. As the credits rolled, I decided this was just an elaborate ploy to make me watch this mess of a film.
Josh Brolin plays Joe Doucett, an advertising executive with a drinking problem who can manage to alienate major clients with a single dinner. He’s crass, crude and generally unlikeable. Not exactly brooding, anti-hero material since it’s hard to root for someone you can’t stand. After a particularly bad meeting that culminated with Joe’s inept attempts to hit on a client’s girlfriend, Joe passes out in a drunken stupor and awakens hours later in a hotel room. As he surveys his surroundings, he learns that the “hotel room” is nothing more than a sophisticated prison cell mocked up to resemble something more hospitable.
Joe’s captor holds him for twenty years, force-feeding him images of his murdered ex-wife and news coverage confirming that Joe is the prime suspect. The audience knows it was an airtight frame-up because we see anonymous figures collecting DNA and other forensic evidence from an unconscious Joe to be planted at the crime scene. After twenty years in captivity, Joe is released to seek his revenge and learn the motives behind his imprisonment while facing arrest for a crime he didn’t commit.
Who is Joe’s anonymous captor? How did Joe engender such hatred in his enemy? Why has he been set free to seek his revenge when his enemy could have held him forever? These are the questions that drive the second half of the film. The answers range from implausible to downright silly.
The film suffers from a major identity crisis. Is Oldboy a crime thriller? Not really. Joe’s “investigation” is one ridiculous happenstance piled on top of another illustrated succinctly by the initial step he takes to find his captors. Joe spent twenty years eating the same Chinese take-out food for lunch. He remembers the name “Dragon” appearing on the cartons. So, Joe heads out to China Town, samples dumplings at every restaurant with Dragon in its name and determines which restaurant his captors used. He then hangs out at the restaurant, waits until someone picks up a really big carryout order and follows them straight back to his former “prison” and wreaks havoc on his guards. God bless lucky guesses!
So, is Oldboy a martial arts film? Not really. The fight scenes are brutal, implausible interludes of butchery and torture that lack any of the flair or choreography found in the finer examples of the genre. Films like Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster defy the laws of physics, but the beautiful ballet of the action and the exquisite cinematography make the action the point of the film. Who’s worried about realism during such a visual feast? Watching Josh Brolin kill an army of thugs with a claw hammer and a boxcutter is neither elegant nor interesting. Given the heavy body count, it’s hard to believe that Oldboy is such a snooze.
Our two villains, Adrian (Sharito Copley) and Chaney (Samuel L. Jackson), look like they belong in a Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon. Dressed in ridiculous costumes and sporting absurd facial hair (Copley) or a blonde Mohawk (Jackson), I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to snicker at them as much as I did. When Adrian gives his lengthy, implausibly complicated confession to Joe and reveals all the answers we’ve been awaiting, it’s as satisfying as an R-rated episode of Murder She Wrote.
To further complicate the tone of the film, all this absurdity and inadvertent humor is sprinkled with liberal doses of sadistic violence. Torture is commonplace. Rape is both implied and shown. Oldboy manages to be both silly and repulsive. Not an easy feat, and not one the viewer will enjoy.
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.