(“New To Me” is a column wherein your intrepid reviewer watches the classics — both mainstream and cult — in an effort to fill in the holes in his pop culture literacy and avoid the garbage that generally defines modern cinema. Related thoughts below. See other entries here.)
For the uninitiated, Oldboy is a Korean film with a pretty great premise. A dude is kidnapped and held captive for 15 years for reasons unknown until he’s randomly released one day and goes about trying to figure out why. Factor in that he’s pretty pissed off and has spent the last decade and a half literally punching stone walls until his knuckles are scar tissue covered anvils and you can be assured that someone’s getting fucked up. Make that multiple someones. With a hammer. Squids, too. (Seriously. He eats a live squid. It’s kind of amazing.)
The thing that makes Oldboy great is that it’s more than just a bloody revenge flick. It’s less [insert Steven Seagal ass-kick fest here] and more Man on Fire if Man on Fire was a bit more bat-shit insane. It’s got a lot of cool, stylistic touches, small but unforgettable details, twisted memorable characters, and a central mystery that doesn’t reveal itself too soon (and when it does—hoo boy—it’s like a bomb of crazy going off on your televison). And Min-sik Choi’s performance as main character Oh Dae-su is fantastic. He brings a sort of ad-libbed quality to the whole thing, which feels like it keeps the movie grounded in some sort of reality, even when everything else is going off the rails. Give this movie to someone like Nicholas Cage (assuming he could speak Korean) and it would be a train wreck of Wicker Man proportions. Instead you get a lead actor who is intense but believable even in face of seriously intense circumstances.
This is not to say that Oldboy isn’t without its flaws. The whole premise, especially after you learn the motives behind it, is pretty elaborately far-fetched. Let’s just say that the villain seems to be the type of person who would commit genocide because you cut him off in traffic. Or like in that South Park episode where some kid makes fun of Cartman so he kills the kid’s parents and feeds them to him in some chili while Radiohead mocks the kid for crying. But movies this entertaining earn their suspension of disbelief and Oldboy is so committed to this over-the-top scenario that you just have to go along for the ride. Most action movies are like amusing wallpaper – nice to look at but ultimately forgettable. Oldboy has depth. It’s the type of film you want to discuss with friends, enemies and casual acquaintances even if it is only to say “Well, that was some fucked up shit right there.” As far as I’m concerned that’s all you could ask for.
DYL MAG Score: 8