Fanboy Flick Pick: Oldboy Will Make You Wish Josh Brolin Had Gotten the Batman Role


If they had to do a remake of Oldboy, we should be glad that this was what we got.

And yes, this is explicitly stated in its opening credits as a remake of the Korean film, rather than a re-adaptation of the manga, which would have been more obviously fair game, I think, in most of our minds. Whether you like the final product or not, there’s a difference between the “take 2” nature of re-imaginings like Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Mick Garris’ The Shining, and something like the Jackie Earle Haley Nightmare on Elm Street. The smart alec may argue, with some conviction, that all three are crap – but then every once in a while you get something like David Cronenberg’s The Fly, or even – yes, I’ll defend this one – Kenneth Branagh’s Frankenstein. A rich source can withstand several spin-off tellings, as years of Bible story movies can attest.

Park Chan-wook’s take is tough to beat. But Spike Lee’s not-so-secret weapon is Josh Brolin.

Before we go too much further, it is important to point out that while this may sound like a total cash-in – Park’s film is so visual that it’s hard to imagine too many viewers so deathly allergic to its subtitles that they just had to have a version in English – it is not a sell-out in terms of content. Some plot details have changed, but the twisted nature of the tale has not been watered down. If you know the Korean film, you probably catch my meaning; if you don’t, be aware that “twisted” is not an understatement.

“ASPCA laws have spared you…THIS TIME!”

Every version of Oldboy seems to amp up the years of punishment, so while previous protagonists were locked in a mysterious room for ten and then fifteen years, the new guy gets 20. Oh Dae-su’s phonetics have been rearranged to give us new protagonist Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin), who’s like an Alan Moore-style revisionist take on Don Draper. It’s the ’80s, and being a heavy drinking ad man simply isn’t cool any more, as the once-successful closer now ruins deals by getting wasted and ineptly (yet confidently) hitting on clients’ wives. After a particularly disastrous night ends in him lying in his own vomit in the middle of the street and a rainstorm, he awakens in a clean motel room, serviced with vodka and Chinese dumplings that appear under a catflap. The main window shows an artificial landscape that occasionally shifts from night to day so that he can keep track of time, and the TV works – but the metal door is locked and there is no obvious way out.


As Joe goes through the various stages of grief writ large, and days turn to years, he occasionally sees TV news programs that reveal his wife was murdered and he is the prime suspect; his daughter is safely in foster care now and hates him. Motivated to someday see her again and change that negative perception, he stops accepting the daily dose of vodka and starts exercising like a fiend, by imitating late-night fitness infomercials and televised MMA bouts.


He also gradually tries to pick away at the grouting in the shower to loosen the bricks and maybe find a way out, but just when he appears to be close to that goal, he awakens anew in the middle of a field, wearing a nice suit and equipped with a bag of cash and a phone. His captors have simply let him go, two decades later. But why? And WHOSE RESPONSIBLE THIS?


The who is learned quicker than the why, with his tormentor, here played by Sharlto Copley, forcing Joe to uncover the reason himself within a limited time frame or else, he says, he will kill Joe’s daughter, who he claims to have captive. This is one area where changes made from the original seem peculiarly pandering – one of Park’s best plot elements was the villain having such a weak heart that he could die immediately if Oh laid a hand on him, thus ruining all hope of uncovering the motive by force. Copley’s initially unnamed villain is much stronger than that – he’s a bit like Saw‘s Jigsaw Killer without the cancer – and it smacks of somebody somewhere thinking that Americans need their villains more physically violent.

Okay, enough plot. If you’re new to the material it’s best not to know more, and if you’re familiar, we don’t really want to get into a long game of compare/contrast. Let’s get to the bottom line: no, this is not better than Park’s masterpiece, nowhere near as visually stylish or narratively inventive. Newer plot points can sometimes make even less sense – the 15 years of imprisonment, for example, had a very specific reason vis-a-vis a person’s age, while 20 is somewhat arbitrary. But there’s one aspect that is better, and as controversial as it may be to say, I’ll just come out with it: Josh Brolin does a better acting job than Choi Min-sik.


Now, some of that may be extra-curricular baggage: Brolin is known for being the guy who occasionally engages in real-life drunken brawls, which also made him perfect to play the younger George W. Bush. But he also does one of those physical transformations here that actors love to do, or at least boast about after they’ve done it, going from beer-gut to hard-body. When you see him emerge from captivity with a dark edge, comic-book physique and the look of years of self-taught fighting under his belt, you just might weep that he was considered for the role of Batman and they gave it to Ben Affleck instead.


We all know Brolin’s a great actor, though. Spike Lee has been more inconsistent overall, and here he splits the difference – with Joe’s quest at a street-level shot in a gritty style similar to some of the director’s prior urban dramas, while the world of Copley’s character (I’m deliberately not naming him because the movie itself doesn’t until late in the game) is much slicker and more sci-fi…and apparently lensed with more lights and tripods. Where Park’s was all stylized and colorful, Lee only grants the villain that level of style. Perhaps blasphemously to some, he speeds up the film in the famous hammer fight that was originally a one-shot wonder…but then adds more levels to it afterward, like the hero were a game-player on only the first stage of Streets of Rage.


As for the rest of the cast: Copley creates such a bizarrely mannered villain that it’s hard to imagine he’d be any expert in hiding his identity; nonetheless, it is fun to watch him go. Elizabeth Olsen, playing an ex-junkie nurse who gives Joe a reason to live, adds some much needed beauty and humanity (and yes, full nudity, in case you were wondering) to the ugly, heightened grudge match going on around her. When it comes to Samuel L. Jackson, sporting a King Mabel blond mohawk, I would love to have been a fly on the wall for conversations between him and Lee – this strikes me as exactly the sort of performance the director would be mad at seeing if it were in a Quentin Tarantino movie. (If your favorite thing about Jackson is the way he yells “motherfucker,” you’re in luck.)

I’d still recommend picking up the Korean version instead; as strong as it may be in some areas, this new version is still ultimately little more than a passable cover tune. But if it leads mainstream audiences to the real deal, I’m for it.