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Release Date(s)2013 (March 5, 2014)
The original 2003 Oldboy is pretty much a masterpiece of modern cinema, and if you haven’t seen it – you’re missing a great film. It’s a sprawling epic about revenge, regret and the depths of the human soul. And it’s also features a rather tightly wound jack-in-the-box ending waiting for you to hit that final note where it can spring out at you and make you jump back when it’s through with you (and you will). The only problem with the original film, for Western audiences at least, is it’s a very Korean film. I find that to be a positive myself, but I’m speaking about general audiences and their needs to enjoy a film. Audiences today, a) don’t like to read movies and b) don’t really allow a filmmaker’s culture to define the subject – if its “foreign” to them, the film simply doesn’t make sense. Because of those two things, it was a matter of time before someone remade Oldboy for English speaking audiences. And here’s the thing: for the most part, the changes made to the film to help it be more “Westernized” actually work. I didn’t really have much of a problem with a lot of what was done to the story to translate it. What I did have a problem with, was actually surprising to me, because the film was overseen by Spike Lee who I would never accuse of having this problem with any of his previous films: my problem was with the film’s quick pacing. Spike has never had this issue before, so I find it curious as to why he chose to rush this film through its paces. And I wonder if he’s to blame for that.
At one hour and thirty minutes, Lee’s Oldboy doesn’t shy away from any of the major plot points seen in the original film. Josh Brolin plays Joe Doucet – a major asshat alcoholic who closes a major money deal and then flushes it down the toilet with an egotistical move. He then goes on a bender and pop! he suddenly disappears, only to wake up trapped inside a prison cell made to look like a hotel room. It’s there that he’s left alone with a TV showing him current events, exercise programs and kung fu movies to keep him active and a diet of steady diet of dumplings to keep him alive. As he bides his time, not knowing if he’ll ever get out, Joe goes through all of the stages you would expect a man would go through and Brolin delivers a fine performance here growing older, stronger and weary. Through his only connection to the outside world – the TV – Joe learns that his wife was brutally murdered and through DNA evidence, he’s been definitely linked to the crime. His daughter, however, has survived and has been given up for adoption and over the years, because of the notorious nature of the unsolved murder, ends up being interviewed every few years about the crime. As he’s watched her grow up on camera, he has used her as his sole focus for survival – penning letters to her that remain undelivered. And then, one day, twenty years later, he wakes up in a steamer trunk in the middle of Central Park with his letters, a phone and money – and he’s out for revenge.
To go into any more would be telling too much. If you’re familiar with the original, you’ll be happy to see many nods. Mark Protosevich does a good job drawing in everything that made the original so jaw-dropping and does an even better job giving a Western spin for them to make sense. The villain’s (played by an affected Sharlto Copley) motivation is explained legitimately, there’s a rejiggered hammer fight that goes from videogame reference to film school majestic and Joe’s hunt for his daughter is lined with all the pathos you need and give a few additional whammys to help it feel like the hammer blow that it is. A lot of the metaphysical/Asian concepts that worked so well in the original are scrapped here, and it’s a shame, but I get it. But going back to my original critique – the whole things ends up feeling rushed with no real stakes. I wouldn’t say the film feel glossed over – it just feels like greatest hits homage. My gut would want me to “blame” Lee – but I’m feeling more like it was a studio mandate, and because Lee didn’t originate the story, he didn’t fight like he would. What’s interesting to learn, is Josh Brolin has claimed in the press before the film’s release that he watched Lee’s preferred three hour cut of the film, that he also preferred but he didn’t think it would see release. That just makes me wonder: where is that cut? Because based on what I’m seeing here, all my issues with this film may clear up once that cut is released and as full of potential as this theatrical versions is – a three-hour cut may be something that could push this film into cult status a la Payback. How about it Sony/Film District: can we see the Spike Lee cut please?
The Blu-ray, as most do these days, presents the film in top-notch fashion. Presented at 2.40:1 with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode, the film showcases all the grime, grit and color Lee and his DOP Sean Bobbitt captured with all of their various film stocks (Super’s 8, 16 and 35) giving the picture admirable blacks, sharp lines, fine detail and spot-on flesh tones. It’s also nice to note the mastering job didn’t get overly “crystal” crazy and allowed us to see some nice grain tones – all it all, this version of Oldboy shows off very well. The audio is presented in a nicely enveloping DTS-HD Master Audio. It features some nice very surround play and when it needs to be, gets fully immersive with good rumble and directional notes. There’s not a whole lot that can be said bad about the film’s audio and video presentation.
Extras are a fluffy but here: there’s a nice behind-the-scenes fly-on-the-wall/cast and crew interview mix seventeen minute making of aptly titled The Making of Oldboy, a two quick looks at Brolin’s journey to become Joe (Transformation and Workout Video), an EPK titled Talking Heads and a selection of Alternate and Extended Scenes that are actually worthy of putting back into the film, and gives an idea of how good Lee’s cut could be.
I’m not hating this cut, but it’s not as good as it could be and it’s not as good as a Spike Lee joint should be. I’m holding out that we may someday see the longer cut, and when we do, I have a feeling that a lot of people, who had a problem with this version, will reverse their opinion. It’s a flawed film, but it’s surprisingly closer to the original that I thought it would be – and everyone in it is aces (including Elizabeth Olsen, Sam Jackson, Michael Imperioli and Lance Reddick).
- Todd Doogan