Review: Oldboy / Cert: 18 / Director: Spike Lee / Screenplay: Various / Starring: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olson, Samuel L. Jackson / Release Date: Out Now
Stop us if you've heard this one before... a man, seemingly without rhyme or reason, is kidnapped and locked away in a spartan prison cell minus explanation, company or means to contact the outside world. Twenty years later, he is released – also without explanation – and sets about searching for both answers and vengeance. The crucial question he hasn't asked – why on Earth would you try to remake Oldboy? And has Spike Lee kept that ending intact?
Volumes are spoken by the fact that no octopuses were harmed in the making of this feature. Not that we were particularly desperate to see Josh Brolin wrap his jaws around a live, struggling octopus, but it does give away the fact that Lee's Oldboy is the compromised, toned down American retelling we had all assumed it would be. Make no mistake, this is far from toothless (at times, it's even more brutal and gory than the original movie) but it lacks the punk attitude and sheer ferocity of Chan-wook Park's film.
It starts well, with an extended prelude in which we are introduced to Josh Brolin's unpleasant alcoholic Joe Doucett (pronounced 'Douche-tte'), a less charismatic, handsome and successful Don Draper. After a crucial business meeting goes belly-up, Doucette embarks upon a binge drinking session from which he will never recover. The twenty years (or minutes) we then spend with Joe is when Oldboy is at its best. It's a damning indictment of the quality of the writing that Joe's friendship with a family of mice is the most compelling, affecting relationship in the film. Scenes in which Doucette experiences 9/11 from the confines of his cell have a certain resonance, as does his transformation from chubby schlub to scary muscleman. And then, one day, Doucette is released...
If you've seen the peerless original, then there are few surprises to be found here. There are a few nifty additions and clever technological updates (Joe's dad-like attempts to get to grips with Google and an iPhone are particularly amusing) and Samuel L. Jackson is diverting in his role as a mohawk-wearing, fashionable hotelier, but by and large, it's an inferior redo of a much better film. Lee's version of the hammer fight is well done, and there's a really good flashback sequence towards the end, making Oldboy a hard film to completely disregard. Brolin may lack Min-sik Choi's mesmerising mania, but he's still a fine screen presence. If Elizabeth Olsen is underused as the love interest of the piece, then Sharlto Copley is massively overdone as its villain, giving a camp pantomime performance that feels at odds with (Samuel L's wardrobe aside) the grubby realism the film aims for elsewhere. Lee tries to have his cake and eat it with the denouement, which attempts to be both faithful and uplifting at the same time. Neither works in its favour, resulting in an ending which will disappoint viewers who have seen the original and confuse those who haven't.
Which is not to say that Oldboy is a bad film. It's ill-advised, tonally inconsistent and unwilling to take risks, but it is an enjoyable, slick, occasionally brutal oddity. Some will call it pointless, which it is, but then, isn't most entertainment pointless? The original Oldboy is still out there for you to enjoy, and is entirely unaffected by the existence of this remake. Oldboy may be something of a low point in his career, but at least Spike Lee tried to Do The Right Thing with it...
Expected Rating: 7 out of 10