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Joe Doucette is a man who is abruptly kidnapped and held hostage for 20 years in solitary confinement, for no apparent reason. When he is suddenly released without explanation, he begins an obsessive mission to find out who imprisoned him, only to discover that the real mystery is why he was set free. (From The Weinstein Company’s official synopsis)

 Oldboy (2013)
Every time a foreign film makes any kind of impact on international audiences Hollywood immediately starts talking about a remake. This is such a common phenomenon that most of us have no idea exactly how many of the movies we’ve ignored have their roots in foreign properties. Sure, you knew that Point of No Return was a remake of Luc Besson's Nikita, but did you know that the Queen Latifah/Jimmy Fallon vehicle (excuse the pun) Taxi was a remake of a different Besson production? How about the Tim Allen ‘comedy’ Jungle 2 Jungle, the Robin Williams/Billy Crystal team-up Father’s Day, or Miley Cyrus’ mumblecore debut, LOL? Did you know those were all remakes, too? Probably not, because you rightfully didn’t care. But when something as vital as Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy gets the remake treatment, everyone is up in arms.

There are always exceptions to the ‘foreign remakes are bad’ rule. Among these are films that change genre significations, like Sergio Leone’s Fistful of Dollars, films that reframe the material in a significantly American context, like Martin Scorsese’s The Departed), and films that find further inspiration in the shared source material, like Matt Reeves’ Let Me In (though I tend to still consider that one a superfluous exercise). Since Oldboy isn’t really a genre movie in the first place, the hope among fans was that the remake would recontextualize the subject matter and return it to Garon Tsuchiya’s original manga series. Early in pre-production (after Justin Lin moved on), Steven Spielberg and Will Smith were attached and there was no way America’s favourite, most wholesome director and star were going to make a movie with Park’s disturbing twist ending. Instead, Smith announced that they’d be sticking closer to the manga series, which, presumably comes to a different, less disturbing conclusion. But Spielberg and Smith also left the project, leaving Spike Lee of all people to pick up the ball and run with it. Lee is usually fastidious with his directing choices, so his involvement originally re-stoked interest, but, unfortunately, the new script he agreed to make was entirely based on Park’s film, not Tsuchiya’s comic.

 Oldboy (2013)
I Am Legend and Poseidon screenwriter Mark Protosevich was obviously familiar with Park’s film, even if Lee was not. Unfortunately, he takes his cues straight out of the Hollywood remake playbook. The script over-explains/heightens every plot point from the original film without instilling any new meaning. Things originally implied, like the protagonist’s pre-jail life, are now explicitly detailed, ruining any chance of recreating Park’s delicious ambiguity. We’re even shown exactly how the protagonist gets his hammer. Then, the protagonist’s simple preparation for vengeance is over-complicated when he sees his daughter on television and devotes himself to being the better man for her sake. This requires Protosevich and Lee to bend over backwards to create a reason that he wouldn’t recognize his daughter later in the film, making an already convoluted story impossibly arduous. I guess the idea was to throw the people that saw the original off the scent, but there’s no real point, because, spoiler alert, they reuse Park’s twist. They ad some admittedly entertaining bells and whistles (the coda is pretty clever), but it is the same twist. Oddly, incidental details – including torture methods, specific body part removals, and the number of years the protagonist spends imprisoned (20 instead of 15) – are regularly changed without any purpose.

There’s no point in pretending Lee isn’t every bit as great of a filmmaker as Park – Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X alone earn him the distinction of being one of America’s best directors – but his output has been spotty over the last decade and nothing about Oldboy seemed to appeal to his skills or interests. Even his more mainstream movies, Inside Man and Miracle at St. Anna, included common themes that fit his filmography. Oldboy has something to say about economic standings (the protagonist and antagonist are social opposites), but is more driven by plot and sentiment than political/social subtext (of course, the original story lends itself to a more politically relevant interpretation, especially if you change the bloody ending). As a director, Lee has taken Park’s film and stripped away its deeper emotional truths, leaving the silliness of the concept bare. It’s as if he didn’t believe in the material was worth taking seriously and is making fun of the original film. Park’s version was already full of intentional comedy, too but he found a way to combine the disparate tones to create a unique sense of melodrama. Lee seems to see nothing but the camp appeal. This Oldboy is a good-looking film, but all Lee really manages to bring to the table are more defined scene mechanics and gorier violence (his version of the hallway fight is another prime example of missing the point of the original scene – the awkward impotence is turned into an elaborate action set piece).

 Oldboy (2013)
The performances follow Lee’s tonal lead. They are the Saturday morning cartoon versions of the ones that appeared in Park’s movie. Brolin grunts and shouts his way through a textureless, oafish performance. He appears to have taken the physicality of the role more seriously than the emotional component, as evident in his bulked-up physique and ridiculous fighting abilities. Sharlto Copley’s over-the-top oddness is more amusing and would probably have been a greater joy if it didn’t exist under the shadow of Yoo Ji-tae’s controlled menace. Poor Elizabeth Olsen apparently didn’t get the memo, though, and acts like a real person. I hesitate to say she’s above the material, since Brolin, Copley, and Samuel Jackson are all otherwise fantastic actors, but that’s hard to remember in this context, where her performance is the only moving one in the entire picture.

It’s probably important to note that the final release version of Oldboy was reportedly re-edited by the producers, cutting a 140-minute movie to 105 minutes (Lee’s director’s cut was apparently 185 minutes). I’m not sure what good, if any, those 35 minutes would’ve done (Park’s version is an even 120 minutes), but that’s a whole lot of cutting done against Lee’s wishes and something that earns him some kind of benefit of the doubt.

 Oldboy (2013)

Video


Lee and Steve McQueen’s favourite cinematographer Sean Bobbitt shot their Oldboy using various formats, including 8mm and 16mm, but the majority of the film uses 35mm. This 1080p, 2.40:1 transfer is dynamic, colourful, and plenty grainy. Details are tight, especially the textures of the hyper-crisp close-ups. Some of the wide-angle details are softened by shallow focus, but nothing appears accidentally blurred by compression artefacts. Contrast is set really high, which purposefully crushes out and blows-out a lot of the finer details as well (the highlights are messy during the darkest scenes). The hard edges dance with a bit of film grain, but there are no major haloes or similar sharpening effects. The digitally-assisted colour timing is lively and heavily stylized. The palette is the Guillermo del Toro (or Jean-Pierre Jeunet) special – yellow and green with strong red highlights (some of the darker interiors are more minty than green, I suppose). These colours cut nicely against each other, thanks in large part to the heavy contrast levels, though those aforementioned reds are sometimes so vivid that they bleed out a bit.

 Oldboy (2013)

Audio


Oldboy is presented here in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound. It is a stylized movie, but this is not a particularly aggressive mix. The majority of the sound, including dialogue and incidental effects, is clear and centered with only a handful of them escaping into the stereo and surround channels. Ambient immersion is minimal, breaking down mostly to rare street/crowd noise and the dismal buzz of the prison corridors. The hallway fight is the most bombastic scene overall, including quite a few directional enhancements, but there are also a couple of more subtle audio tricks, like a bit where the sounds of Hurricane Katrina are blended into Joe’s training montage. Composer Roque Baños’ music sort of echoes Jo Yeong-wook’s original score, but never directly quotes it. His more traditional, string-assisted cues are appropriately mournful and given the appropriate multi-channel swell during the big revelations. His more percussion-heavy cues (that hallway fight again) are kind of goofy, but do include heavy LFE impacts.

 Oldboy (2013)

Extras


  • Four alternate & extended scenes (11:50, HD) – Not even close to the 35-80 minutes of deleted footage, these scenes do almost nothing to change the concept of the final project. The fact that none of the deleted scenes appear is especially suspect.
  • The Making of Oldboy (16:50, HD) – An EPK that covers the basics of the production with cast & crew interviews and behind-the-scenes footage.
  • Transformation (2:10, HD) – A shorter featurette about Brolin’s physical change.
  • Talking Heads (2:40, HD) – Another fluffy and short featurette that actually acknowledges the source material.
  • Workout Video Promo (:50, HD) – A gag trailer.
  • Previews for other Sony releases.


 Oldboy (2013)

Overall


Spike Lee’s Oldboy had very little chance of working – the original film is one of the best of the last decade and not yet old enough to really warrant revisiting. As a remake, this version is terrible, recycling the plot without bringing anything but hyperbole to the table. As a standalone feature…it’s still pretty bad. It rolls awkwardly between camp and high melodrama without connecting on either account. I do have a theory that Lee intended on making a parody of Hollywood remakes in general as part of a deeper, meta-text meaning, mostly because I can’t think of any other reason to include so many visual references to Japanese and Chinese culture in a remake of a South Korean film. It has to be a joke, right? Sony has done a fine job with the A/V quality here, but anyone that actually liked the film or was at least intrigued by its shortcomings will be disappointed by the relative lack of extras, especially the rumoured 80 minutes of deleted footage.

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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