MRR Review: Oldboy (2013)

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Obsessed with vengeance, a man sets out to find out why he was kidnapped and locked up into solitary confinement for 20 years without reason.
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MRR Review: Oldboy (2013)

Rating: R (strong brutal violence, disturbing images, some graphic sexuality and nudity, and language)
Length: 104 minutes
Release date: November 27, 2013
Directed by: Spike Lee
Genre: Action / Drama / Mystery / Thriller

The "Oldboy" series has certainly had an interesting history. Originally created in Japan as a graphic novel, a movie version was released in South Korea in 2003. In the transition, the somewhat dark graphic novel became a deeply disturbing visual treat filled with added twists and considerably more violence and death. Widely hailed as one of the finest examples of East Asian cinema, the film has gained a cult following over the years. When Spike Lee signed on to produce his own version of the tale, reactions were mixed.

The story begins with the introduction of the primary protagonist, Joe Doucette. Played by the talented Josh Brolin, Doucette is a troubled alcoholic similar to the protagonists of the East Asian versions. After a night of heavy drinking, he finds himself in what appears to be a hotel room turned into a prison cell, where he will stay for 20 years. Forced to live on Chinese dumplings, he spends his days working out, watching television, and hoping for a chance at revenge. While incarcerated, his television informs him that his wife has been murdered. Doucette is the only suspect, and the fabricated evidence against him is strong.

His chance comes when he is released, but his captor has no desire to make his life easy. After meeting and falling for the film's female lead, played in Lee's version by Elizabeth Olsen, he begins his quest for revenge. Lee has shown acumen for ultra-stylized visuals, which help to buttress the power of his vengeance. Clearly the wronged party, Doucette's revenge is not joyous but clinical, and the audience alternates between delight and horror in response to his violence.

Along the way, Doucette is taunted by Adrian Pryce, played by South African actor Sharlto Copley. Methodical and cold, Copley remains a mystery through much of the movie, and his quiet confidence both deepens the mystery and terrifies both Doucette and viewers. Planning to take his final revenge against the man who stole 20 years of his life, Doucette tracks down and confronts the wealthy, powerful, and composed Pryce. The climax between Doucette and Pryce is the most compelling and challenging element of all three iterations of the story, and Lee's version has a unique take that's sure to challenge viewers new to the story and divide those who are fans of the South Korean version.

While Lee is well known for his explorations of race and class relations, he has also demonstrated an ability to create strong personal stories, as shown by his more recent films. His directorial style is also well established, and his ability to add visual depth to scenery plays a large factor in his version of "Oldboy." When originally planned, the film was attached to Steven Spielberg and Will Smith. While both are extremely talented, most questioned whether Smith would be capable of the dark, disturbing acting needed to play the protagonist. Likewise, Steven Spielberg is known for touching scenes and sentimentality, two elements wholly absent from the Japanese manga and the South Korean film.

Hiring Lee was a risk, but it paid off. Instead of being given a sterilized, bland American version of the original material, viewers are given the interpretation of a director known for taking risks and creating memorable, if not heartwarming, scenes. Lee's previous explorations of dark scenes have helped him grow into one of the most mature, challenging directors in the world, and his unique skill set helped him bring a unique, powerful film to adventurous audiences.

While the violence, hammers and all, remains, no octopuses were harmed in Lee's version. However, audiences will still be challenged, and the most psychologically difficult elements of the South Korean version are retained. Lee has stated multiple times that he never entertained the thought of Americanizing the material. Only a bold director could add twists to the original milder graphic novel, and only a bold director would keep these elements when adapting it for American audiences.

It is hard to imagine a better director for the translation than Lee. Some fans of the original film would undoubtedly prefer a shot-for-shot reproduction of the film they love, but such a reproduction would be pointless. Many audiences would likely prefer a psychologically tamer yet violent adaptation that was a bit less challenging, but doing so would take away from the impact of the source material. Only a director with the enthusiasm of an artist but the maturity of a veteran could produce a respectable adaptation that is appealing yet not pandering, and Lee delivers a film that will further cement his role as one of the true artists of American cinema.

Rating: 3 out of 5