— NEON

Action movies are only as good as the motivation their hero has. That can vary from avenging a dog to saving the universe, but one of the strongest human emotions is also one of the most effective: revenge.

Twenty years ago, Korean film legend Park Chan-wook made the quintessential revenge thriller, one that’s had a massive influence on nearly every action movie that followed it. Now, a new restoration is streaming on Netflix, and the classic remains well worth your time.

Oldboy is the story of Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik), an ordinary businessman who’s kidnapped seemingly at random. He wakes up in a hotel room, where his only contact with the outside world is through the food served to him through a doggy door. There’s not much to do, so he spends the next 15 years getting into shape and practicing martial arts.

When he’s suddenly released, he’s a little bit feral. At one point, he walks into a sushi restaurant and eats a live octopus as it squirms all over his face. With the help of sushi chef Mi-do, he attempts to track down his captors and learn why he was targeted. The truth is far more twisted than he realized.

But while the drama is memorable, what’s really impressive is the action. The “hallway fight” trope is a well-established combat setpiece where one character faces off against waves of enemies in a confined space, like Darth Vader’s entrance in Rogue One or the fight scenes in Daredevil. But countless Hollywood examples owe their existence to a scene in Oldboy where Oh Dae-su fends off countless goons with a hammer.

“I almost saw the scene as a materialization of those things that fight with us and torture us in life,” Park told Inverse in August 2023. “And the fatigue and loneliness that comes from this lifelong battle, with these things that torture us. I saw it as a metaphor in that way.”

Filmed in one shot, it is the example of perfect fight choreography. It feels organic and real; there’s never a baddie waiting in the background for their turn to get their ass kicked. This realistic tone lasts throughout the movie. Even when the plot gets inflated to ridiculous heights, the gritty feeling keeps viewers grounded and invested.

The fight — and the movie as a whole — has since become such a cultural touchstone that it’s easy to forget how unique it is. Oldboy combines influences from martial arts movies, film noir, and even ancient Greek myth, disparate elements that establish a unique style. Even a 2013 Spike Lee remake couldn’t replicate what makes it special.

Among other achievements, Oldboy is proof that action movies don’t need fight scenes for the sake of having fight scenes. Instead, brutality can be a form of emotional expression, not just an impressive spectacle. Sure, you can watch the hallway fight on YouTube and be wowed, but watching it in its proper context is a transcendental experience, and now it’s streaming in better quality than ever.

Oldboy is streaming on Netflix.

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