I missed OLDBOY (2013) when it played at theaters last year— it was gone pretty quickly— but I was able to catch up with it the other day on Netflix streaming.
OLDBOY is a remake of a 2003 Korean film of the same name, a movie I have not seen, but one that is reportedly much better than this remake by director Spike Lee. OLDBOY is a tale of mystery and revenge, and it’s one that I would have liked much more had I actually believed it.
We meet Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin), a man who’s not particularly likable— in fact, he’s downright unlikable— screwing up his business meetings and his family life, as he misses his three year-old daughter’s birthday party and screams at his ex-wife on the phone. After botching an important business deal, Joe gets himself stinking drunk, and it’s in this state that he’s kidnapped, whisked away into the night from a dark rainy street.
When he awakes, he finds himself imprisoned in a hotel room. He receives food on a tray which is passed through a small opening in the door, and of course he has access to a bathroom, but he’s held in this room for twenty years. During this time, he sees on television news reports of his ex-wife’s murder, and how he has been implicated in the crime. Over the years, since the story of the murder of his ex-wife makes for sensationalistic television, especially since the chief suspect— him—has disappeared, there are follow-up reports, and during the twenty year span he gets to see reports of his daughter’s well-being.
One day, after twenty years of imprisonment, he is released without explanation. Joe makes it his mission to find out who imprisoned him for twenty years and for what reason. He receives help from his friend Chucky (Michael Imperioli) and a young nurse Marie Sebastian (Elizabeth Olsen) with troubles of her own, and she’s attracted to Joe because she sees him as a kindred spirit. Their search leads them to some unsavory characters, a man named Chaney (Samuel L. Jackson) and another man named Adrian (Sharlto Copley) who tells Joe that he’s asking the wrong question, that the question he should be asking isn’t why he was imprisoned, but why was he released?
Not that it really matters, because the answer to both these questions is so convoluted I didn’t buy any of it.
First of all, Joe Doucett is one of the least likable protagonists I’ve seen in a movie in a while, and so I didn’t care what happened to him. That being said, what he did to deserve this fate is so minor it’s ridiculous. When it was time finally for the great revelation— the reason this all came to pass— I was like— really? Are you kidding me? That’s it?
Did I believe that a guy as strong as Joe couldn’t have broken out of that hotel room? Not once in twenty years? No. I did not believe this.
Did I believe that an organization as described in the movie— the one responsible for running the hotel— exists? No. Don’t get me wrong. In real life it very well might exist, but in this movie, it came off as so fake I thought I was watching a cheesy 1980s Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. Those films were fun because Arnold was so over the top. This film is trying to be dark and serious. It doesn’t work.
Did I believe Joe could become a deadly assassin just by training all by his lonesome in his hotel room? Not really.
I’ve enjoyed Josh Brolin in such films as NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007), JONAH HEX (2010), and GANGSTER SQUAD (2013), and his performance here in OLDBOY is fine, but he’s stuck playing a character I just didn’t like, and as a result, I didn’t care what really happened to him, which made for a very long 104 minutes.
Likewise, I enjoyed Elizabeth Olsen as Nurse Marie Sebastian. I always seem to like Olsen, enjoying her performances in the otherwise awful horror movie SILENT HOUSE (2011) and most recently GODZILLA (2014). That being said, she does seem to play the same part- the victim.
Sharlto Copley is always fascinating to watch but he’s somewhat less so here as the mysterious Adrian. It’s still an interesting performance, but nowhere near as powerful as his villainous turn as Kruger in the science fiction hit ELYSIUM (2013). And Samuel L. Jackson does his wise-cracking bad ass shtick as the sketchy Chaney.
I don’t really have a problem with the direction by Spike Lee, other than the big no-no that I didn’t buy the story, but I used to really enjoy Lee’s movies, films like SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT (1986), DO THE RIGHT THING (1989) and MALCOLM X (1992). It’s been a while.
For me, the weakest part of OLDBOY was the screenplay by Mark Protosevich, based on the screenplay of the Korean movie. First off, the basic premise of the movie, the story of a man kidnapped and held against his will for twenty years only to be released without any explanation, was highly implausible.
The imprisonment scenes with Joe in the hotel room were all rather dull, and director Lee adds very little in the way of creative touches to make these mundane scenes memorable.
Things naturally pick up a bit and get more interesting once Joe is released, because then the mystery becomes the focal point of the movie: why was Joe imprisoned? As much as I didn’t like Joe as a character, I was still interested in following him on his investigation while he tried to learn what happened. By far, these scenes were the most gripping in the film but they were hardly exciting.
And then, once he starts finding answers, it doesn’t take long for the realization to set in that these answers are completely ludicrous. I just did not believe that someone would spend that much time and energy— twenty years’ worth— just to exact revenge when so many simpler options exist.
There is one final twist, and I will say, of all the plot points in the movie, this one was the most satisfying, but for me, it was too little too late.
Had this film put some effort into making the audience believe what was going on, it would have been a much more satisfying film. I didn’t believe in the forces at work here. I didn’t believe they could do what they did, and I certainly didn’t believe Joe’s “crime” was the kind of thing which would drive someone to plan out twenty years’ worth of revenge. I also didn’t like Joe as central character very much.
And for a thriller, I didn’t find OLDBOY very exciting or all that intense.
OLDBOY plays more like OLD MAN.