Oldboy (2013) - DVD Review

'the director fashions enough changes to make his version of the story feel worthwhile whilst ensuring he remains faithful to the original'

It seems fair to say that Spike Lee’s remake of Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy was doomed to critical crucifixion well before it had even been released. Many questioned why Lee would bother to remake a film that, in the ten years since its release, has become not only a critical favourite of Korean cinema but also firm cult classic. With Lee’s Oldboy having already received considerable panning from various outlets through comparison to Park’s Oldboy, and having not watched the original for some time, it was a conscious decision not to reacquaint myself with Park’s film before watching Lee’s version. Judging the 2013 film on its own merits rather than constantly evaluating how it measures up to its 2003 precursor seems like the fair thing to do.

As a piece of cinema in its own right, Oldboy has plenty to offer. The story - part mystery, part thriller - is as captivating as ever. Lee handles the machinations of the narrative well, making Joe Doucett’s (Josh Brolin) story surreal and fantastical yet compelling and authentic for much of the running time. It’s also to Lee’s credit that his Oldboy isn’t just a shot-for-shot English language remake of Park’s film. Working to Mark Protosevich’s adapted screenplay, the director fashions enough changes to make his version of the story feel worthwhile whilst ensuring he remains faithful to the original.

Brolin as protagonist Joe delivers a largely solid if somewhat vanilla turn. Whilst the actor never eclipses Choi Min-sik’s performance in the original, Brolin consistently and pleasingly avoids making Joe the Jason Statham-esque meathead he could have been. A key issue within the opening act, however, is that Lee goes too far in making Joe a seriously deplorable and unsympathetic character, rendering him unlikable to the point of distraction. It’s an issue which is naturally resolved through the character’s arc and Brolin’s acting, but it makes Oldboy regularly and gratingly tricky to engage with during its first act.

The support is consistently fine: Elizabeth Olsen develops a satisfying chemistry with Brolin as the film wears on; and Samuel L. Jackson, pulling a generic gangster out of his less challenging character set, may be going through the motions most of the time but is still a welcome presence. Most impressive here is Sharlto Copley with an entertainingly theatrical turn as Joe’s nemesis. Copley is an actor who for me has yet to disappoint, and puts in a performance that makes him a worthy contender for casting as a future Bond villain.

What holds Lee’s film back regularly is his ambition, or lack of it. Too often the director is happy to make his film perfunctory, especially when compared to the stylistic panache of the film he’s chosen to remake. This is evidenced most clearly in Oldboy’s fight scenes: whilst entertaining enough, the film’s violent streak feels somewhat neutered and never memorable. Even the handful of respectful nods to Park’s film at times remind you of how ordinary Lee allows things to be. Joe peering at a squid in a fish tank as he enters a Chinese restaurant only serves to remind you that there’s nothing here to match Min-sik’s unforgettable scene involving the same animal in the 2003 film. Lee’s Oldboy ends up a solidly entertaining counterpart to its superior Korean source film. It’s never outstanding but perfectly worthwhile, and certainly not deserving of the derision it has seemingly become both popular and acceptable to hurl at it.

Oldboy (2013) is released in the UK on DVD and Blu-ray on Monday April 7th 2014.

By Ben Broadribb. Ben is a regular contributor to Film Intel, having previously written at Some Like It Hot Fuzz. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. He is a geek, often unashamedly so. He's also on and Twitter.

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