It's difficult to pin-point exactly where Spike Lee went wrong with 'Oldboy,' an American reimaging of Park Chan-wook 2003's action cult favorite, which was itself based on a Japanese manga from the mid-90s. We can't entirely blame the script by Mark Protosevich ('The Cell,' 'Thor'), which follows the original film's storyline very closely with only a few minor alterations. Even the opening credits favor the South Korean production for inspiration over the graphic comic series. Then again, perhaps that is the first mistake made by the filmmaker. This version is so similar to Chan-wook's that it largely plays like a carbon copy, except that it's spoken in English, making a comparison between the two inevitable, if not nearly necessary. Those coming into this blind might be satisfied, but fans of the original will sit on the fence, wondering the point of remaking it at all.
Another likely reason for Lee's production being somewhat of a disappointment goes to that familiar behind-the-scenes drama that rarely proves a benefit to any movie: studio interference. According to some news reports and interviews, the version seen in theaters, which runs at 104 minutes and the only one offered for home video, is the result of heavy editing by producers. From what we see — and far as I can tell — this was not done in an effort to appease the ratings board because the movie is fairly brutal, graphic and violent. In one scene, the claw end of a hammer is savagely thrust into the top of a man's skull, and in another, a man's head explodes from a self-inflicted shotgun blast. Reportedly, Lee wanted a 140-minute version, which was already edited from a rumored 185-minute cut that was more methodical and character-driven, but producers envisioned a faster paced, more action-packed film.
By all accounts, the studio is at least successful in this respect, as the narrative rapidly moves from portraying Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin doing a marvelous job in the role) as the world's biggest jerk, the worst father and the sole ruin of his own life to his twenty-year incarceration. Admittedly, it does make for an entertaining-enough picture that adequately gives rise and reason to Joe's revenge-fueled fury, and Brolin's stoic, reserved demeanor adds poignant weight to when the character lets loose his rage. The scenes with Joe eating at various Chinese restaurants, which all happen to be named "Dragon" something, hoping to locate the particular flavor of food that was served during his captivity, is a nice balance of dark humor and mild suspense. It all leads to a confrontation with Samuel L. Jackson sporting a fashionable Mohawk and a reimaging of the famous fight sequence from the original, which frankly just doesn't compare.
On the other hand, whatever editing was done to Lee's original vision makes room for a few drawbacks, leaving behind a rather unsatisfying aftertaste because the conclusion is arrived at with seemingly scant effort. Ultimately, there is little to no mystery behind Joe's imprisonment since he is able to figure it out pretty easily — with some help, of course, from a childhood friend (Michael Imperioli) and intensely caring volunteer clinic nurse, Marie (Elizabeth Olsen), who's taken an unexplained particular interest in Joe. While a blossoming romance between Joe and Marie is thankfully more relaxed and unhurried, it doesn't take long for the two to discover that a flamboyantly eccentric Sharlto Copley is the mastermind behind this extraordinarily elaborate revenge plot. Although I like the calm extravagance by which the filmmakers reveal the final shocking twist — not surprising, however, for fans of the original — answers are rewarded for hardly any work or sweat on the part of the characters.
Normally, I'm a fan of Spike Lee, an intelligent and creative filmmaker whose work terrifically toes the line between entertaining ingenuity and penetrating cultural insight. Unfortunately, 'Oldboy,' in its current 104-minute form, leaves an unsatisfying black mark in the director's resume, especially after becoming one of the biggest box-office bombs of recent memory. The most astute viewers will see some glimmers of Lee's visionary eye come through, complemented beautifully by Sean Bobbitt's ('12 Years a Slave') gritty photography, a combination of Super8, Super16 and Super35 film stock. Like the protagonist, there's a brooding, emotional underbelly writhing just beneath the surface trying to break through, but sadly, much of this is unjustly lost and contained by third-party interference while some unknown stranger waits to capitalize on its release after twenty years.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment brings 'Oldboy (2013)' to Blu-ray on a Region A locked, BD50 disc with a code for an UltraViolet Digital Copy and housed inside a blue, eco-elite keepcase. After skipping over several trailers, viewers are taken to a static window with menu options along the bottom and music playing in the background.
Spike Lee's remake brings down the hammer with a first-rate 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode that's faithful to the visionary cinematography of Sean Bobbitt. Shot with a combination of Super35, Super16 and Super8 stock, the heavily-stylized photography is very well-defined with distinct, sharp lines in the foliage and buildings. Lifelike facial complexions reveal the tiniest wrinkle and blemish while maintaining excellent, natural skin tones in the entire cast. Grain alternates between noticeably thick and extra fine depending on the scene and done deliberately, but the video remains detailed throughout. Shadows in a few poorly-lit interiors tend to swallow some minor background info, but again, this is related to the intentions of the filmmakers. Contrast also wavers in relation to the narrative and emotional struggle of the characters, and blacks are sadly on the low end of the grayscale though a good majority of the high-def transfer maintains strong brightness levels. The palette has an interesting metallic feel to it and skewed slightly to yellow, earth tones with the popular teal-orange variety, but primaries remain bold and nicely saturated throughout.
'Oldboy' debuts unto Blu-ray with a very satisfying DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack that subtly employs the rears for ambience. With good directionality and panning, the sounds of people chatting in restaurants, busy city streets and the echoes of characters talking in sparse areas fill the room to generate an immersive soundfield. Much of the activity is admittedly centered in the front soundstage, but again, movement is smooth and convincing, creating a welcoming and broad image with excellent balance. The mid-range is appreciably extensive with detailed clarity and separation in the upper frequencies while dialogue is delivered in the center with excellent transparency and intelligibility. The low-end is not very demanding, but there's plenty of power and oomph in the bass to support the music and action sequences, making this a very enjoyable lossless mix.
'Oldboy' is essentially an Americanized version of the original South Korean action cult favorite by Park Chan-wook with only a few, minor alterations. Another victim of studio and producer interference, director Spike Lee manages to infuse the production with some stylish visuals and brings out terrific performances from the cast, but sadly, the end result is somewhat of a disappointment. The Blu-ray arrives with a gritty, stylized picture quality and an excellent audio presentation. Supplements are fairly light, but worth watching nonetheless, making the overall package a decent purchase when the price is right or a good rental for those who can't wait that long.