It’s always nice when action movies have a point. Sure, seeing people get their heads bashed in is enough to please most people, but I always like cranial harm to be going somewhere.
On this front, Spike Lee’s 2013 flop “Oldboy” fails. While it’s not a horrible movie, it’s boring, forgettable and ultimately something I wouldn’t recommend you spend money to see.
As I was doing my customary post-movie IMDb search, I discovered that the boring dreck I had just waded through was really a stateside remake of a 2003 Korean thriller by director Park Chan-wook. More importantly, I discovered that I was late to the party (the film has had a sizable cult following in the US for years) and resolved to make a forgettable one-off into a double feature.
Thankfully, Chan-wook’s original succeeds where Lee’s failed in every aspect imaginable. While one was just another boring thriller, the other was unceasingly entertaining.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
“Oldboy” is the story of a drunken jerk named Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) who is kidnapped off the street for (seemingly) no reason and locked in a room for the better part of 15 years.
As can be expected for someone locked in a room for a decade and a half, Dae-su plans to escape, training himself to fight and (slowly) digging through his cell wall.
However, just as he nears his escape, he is mysteriously set free. Dae-su then discovers that the person responsible for locking him up is millionare Lee Woo-Jin (Kang Hye-jung) who (once again, seemingly) has no other motivation save to make Oh Dae-su’s life a living hell. Woo-Jin offers him an ultimatum: figure out why he was imprisoned or have everyone he cares about be killed. Seeing as how Dae-su’s been locked up for 15 years, he doesn’t exactly have a burgeoning social circle, so this threat mainly includes his best friend and a new love interest Mi-do (Kang Hye-jung).
While the million-dollar special effects and impossible feats of kung-fu mastery that are staples of action releases are notably absent, “Oldboy” makes up for what it lacks in shininess with brutal realism.
Of course, the scene that comes to mind is the infamous “hammer fight.” It’s just one long tracking shot along a hallway of Dae-su becoming a whirlwind of bodies and hardware supplies as he takes a hammer to a gang of thugs.
Imagine “Enter the Dragon” taking place in a Home Depot, and you’ll have a pretty accurate picture.
If “Oldboy” delivers on nothing else except awesome action, I would qualify it as a good movie. What propels it to the status of great movie (at least in my books) is that its story has a theme besides being a method of linking several fight scenes together. And what’s more, it’s a good one.
The funny thing about “Oldboy” is that the characters themselves really aren’t that interesting, yet the film still manages to make us care about them.
Dae-su is a gruff, emotionally distant man who’s been driven ever-so-slightly crazy by his 15 years in solitary confinement. All the “growing” that Dae-su did as a character happened in prison, and is pretty much done after the first 15 minutes. The protagonist we are left with is now just a broken man who shows what happens when you push a person past his breaking point.
Mi-do puzzled me at first. I couldn’t fathom a) why anyone would fall in love with someone as insane as Dae-su (not to mention old) and b) why she didn’t turn tail and run as soon as the guys with the knives showed up at her apartment. I wrote her off as just another two-dimensional romantic counterpart to the protagonist.
I was so wrong.
Without spoiling the twist, the preposterous way in which they fall in love is extremely important to the story. You just don’t know it yet.
The only character I found initially interesting was Woo-jin.
He’s introduced to us as a sociopath, which is convenient because there’s nobody an audience loves to hate more. However, by the film’s conclusion, he is promoted to a sociopath with several very valid motivations.
While the sheer magnitude of the suffering he inflicts on Dae-su is hardly a just response to Dae-su’s past transgressions, it’s easy to empathize with Woo-jin after all the facts are revealed.
I anticipate this movie to be slightly polarizing even amongst action fans because of the twist ending. It really does make or break the film. The goal is for the audience to be weirded out, but to what extent it repulses you will either make or break the film..
Best case scenario is that you are left slightly grossed out but still confident you just saw an awesome action movie. Worst case scenario is that the sheer grossness just gets to be too much, as has been the case with many viewers.
Despite the inherent divisiveness, anybody who even remotely identifies as a fan of action (or tool-based violence) should see this movie posthaste.