New to cinemas – 6th December 2013
The story of a man imprisoned for 20 years is always going to be grim. In the new Oldboy, not a single glimmer of light pokes through the movie’s filthy dirge, just like in this year’s bleakest mainstream thrillers Prisoners and The Counselor. Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) is a scummy ad exec, sleazy and self-serving, the kind of man who doesn’t turn up to his daughter’s 3rd birthday party because she wouldn’t remember it. One night, he disappears beneath an umbrella and wakes up in a room in which he’ll spend the next two decades of his life. With only TV as company, he finds he has been framed for his wife’s murder, and upon his inexplicable release, he makes it his goal to find his daughter and clear his name.
On the outside, a man tells Joe he has two days to find out why he was imprisoned or his daughter will be killed. This villain is played by Sharlto Copley, an actor I’ve never been fond of and after Oldboy, is yet to convince me. Joe’s saga in these next 48 hours involves lots of brutal detective tactics, usually involving a hammer embedded in someone else’s skull, with the aid of a woman named Marie who Joe drags into his endeavor and eventually falls in love with. Brolin uses his burly size fantastically in the role, coming alive as Joe evolves into an unstoppable force. The only problem is, however, the harder Joe becomes the less easy it is to sympathise with him, which prevents the film from mining the potential emotional impact Joe’s situation could, or should, deliver.
What Spike Lee achieves with this remake is turning it from a specifically Asian movie to a specifically American one, and Oldboy should appeal to those who were fans of Prisoners‘ funereal death-march storytelling. Unfortunately I couldn’t get past over comparisons to the Korean original; it’s been one of my favourites for years, and I prefer its stylish direction and shockingly cruel humour over the straight-to-the-bone feel of the 2013 version. Park Chan-wook’s film has much more impact in its devastating story, which renders Lee’s version redundant (unless you aren’t keen on subtitled films). All the same, it was surprisingly engrossing, as Oh Dae-su’s story is a gripping one whichever way it’s told. I just felt as though there wasn’t enough added to Oldboy to make it work as an alternative to the original.
Oldboy (2003) The original, directed by Park Chan-wook. 9.7
Prisoners (2012) Abduction-revenge thriller starring Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal and Paul Dano. 7.7
The Counselor (2005) Ridley Scott directed and Cormac McCarthy scripted, starring Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Cameron Diaz, Penelope Cruz. 7.5