Obsessed with vengeance, a man sets out to find out why he was kidnapped and locked into solitary confinement for 20 years without reason.
Year 3, Film #2
THE GOOD: I’m always a big proponent of films that have location restrictions and Oldboy is no different. While it turns out to be much less time than the trailers made it out to be, the parts where I really enjoy this film are when Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) is trapped in his prison for twenty years. Having a restriction as big as this — one person alone in a room — often leads to many interesting results. Sometimes it’s done really well (à la Life of Pi) and it can carry a whole movie and wrap you up so much that you forget it’s only one person for two hours. Other times, like in Oldboy it’s not done too well and it doesn’t last the whole film (the time spent in the prison is probably no more than twenty, thirty minutes) but it still puts questions in your head and gets you intrigued as to why Doucett is there, who put him there, and what’s going to happen when he gets out.
Not only am I a big fan of the restricted locations, but I’m also a big fan of what I’ll call mystery games: a sort of puzzle the protagonist has to guess through in order to solve it. Another great example of this would be David Fincher’s The Game. The film begins with a brief introduction to Joe Doucett, enough to understand why someone would want to kidnap him and frame him for murder. After that, he goes into the prison for twenty years, is released, and then presented with a proposition by his kidnaper (Sharlto Copley) that if he can identify who he is and why he abducted him, he’ll let his daughter go unharmed. While it could have been structured better to produce more of an impact, Oldboy still delivered a fair amount of mystery and suspense to keep you entertained throughout.
THE BAD: While Oldboy has a good setup and premise, the execution leaves much to be desired. There are countless moments scattered throughout that left me scratching my head as to why they revealed something so early. Keep it a secret until you absolutely have to show who’s behind something. One of the biggest examples is Chaney (Samuel L. Jackson). He’s the guy who runs/monitors the prison where Doucett is held. But instead of keeping that a secret, it’s revealed pretty much right after Doucett is captured. You want to show that Doucett is being filmed and monitored by someone on the outside, fine. But limit that to the view of the security cameras; you don’t need to see the person watching the cameras — that only takes away suspense.
It’s not only moments like this that take away suspense and mystery though, it’s also the general existence of characters too. Joe Doucett is ok because there’s a lot of time spent on showing you who this person is. Marie Sebastian (Elizabeth Olsen) is also handled well in terms of releasing the amount of information necessary for the level of her character. But pretty much all the other main and minor characters including the villain (see: the kidnapper played by Copley), Chaney, and Chucky (Michael Imperioli) seem extraneous. They all serve a purpose but you could just as easily replace them with someone else doing the same thing and it wouldn’t matter. Their actions matter, but the people themselves seem useless.
I can’t help but imagine how different this film would have been if director Spike Lee got his way. The producers forced him to significantly cut down the film from his original vision, so much so that he removed his trademark “A Spike Lee Joint” from the film in favor of “A Spike Lee Film”. Many of the criticisms I’ve mentioned and those I haven’t (there are numerous questionable moments throughout the film that seem like obvious plot holes) might have been alleviated with a longer cut. More time could have made the film more suspenseful and removed the need to visually and audibly tell the audience what was going on in favor of letting them go along for the ride and try to figure things out as they happened. Bottom line though is the short version is the version we got and these are the problems we have to deal with.
THE TAKEAWAY: An entertaining film with an interesting premise. Many of the mysteries and suspenseful moments are undermined though by giving away too much information. So instead of getting what could have been a fantastic thriller, Oldboy is merely just a decent action film that will entertain, but won’t really make you think.
THE RATING: 3 out of 5