The 400-Word Review: Oldboy

By Sean Collier

November 28, 2013

The reviews from Men in Black 3 were that bad?

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It’s troublesome to consider the target audience when evaluating a film — particularly when the filmmaker is as enigmatic and anti-populist as Spike Lee. But the first question on my mind with regards to Oldboy, his remake of the 2003 Chan-wook Park drama, is: Who is this for?

It’s certainly not for general audiences. Anyone even passingly familiar with the original knows that it’s dark, violent and universally disturbing; the unwitting moviegoer who buys a ticket for Oldboy is likely to emerge outraged. Fans of the original will simply be incensed that a remake has been produced, and devotees of particularly nasty cinema...well, they’ve all seen the original.

Perhaps Lee is making Oldboy for the small sliver of serious film fans who are receptive to such pictures, but missed Park’s film. If that’s the case, then he should’ve done a better job.

Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) is a hopeless, self-destructive drunk with a three-year-old daughter and a tendency for sexual harassment. After a particularly sloppy bender, he’s seduced by a mysterious woman on the street; he wakes up in a Lynchian hotel room, unable to leave. You can’t go much further without revealing spoilers in this particularly twisty tale, but Doucett remains in that room for a very long time.


The rest of the film is concerned with his quest to find answers — but if you make it that far, you’ve moved past the stuff worth seeing. The first act, covering Doucett’s captivity and the prologue to it, is inventive and disturbing. Everything that follows is lazy; I’m not sure if Lee lost interest or the natural flaws of the depravity-before-logic script handcuffed him, but the promise of that first half-hour is obliterated.

The character functions, sort of, as an anti-hero; even if we’re put off by his behavior in the first reel, it’s easy to get caught up in a revenge quest. But Oldboy itself is determined to put off audiences, with sequences of gore, violence and general misery so raw that any interest in the more procedural elements of the mystery will vanish for all but the most jaded viewers.

If the direction and design were consistently impressive, it might be enough to coolly recommend Oldboy to the curious, but that’s not the case. Lee shows his considerable talents for a while, but needed to do much more to make this mess of a movie work.

Sean Collier is the Associate Editor of Pittsburgh Magazine and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Read more from Sean at



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