McClatchy-Tribune News Service
The problem with remakes is that you can’t “un-see” the original film. And that’s especially true of Chan-wook Park’s searing 2003 hit, “Oldboy.”
Spike Lee’s new version deviates in a lot of minor and a few important ways. But try as one might, a viewer cannot shake memories of the righteous and horrific violence and the shattering twists of the original.
It’s still the story of a man drugged, kidnapped and locked up, with no human contact, for 20 years. He gets out, furious and foaming at the mouth for revenge.
But this new “Oldboy” has a much longer prologue, suggesting that Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) is enough of a drunken lout to actually deserve his life-altering fate. And there’s a Hollywood style spoon-fed epilogue that goes beyond merely “explaining” the reasons for what came before.
It doesn’t so much ruin the movie as misunderstand certain fundamentals about why the first version worked so very well.
Ad agency Joe drinks on the job and then, in an insane touch, comes on to a big client’s wife. Then he wakes up in a room with no phone, a rotating painting of an outdoor scene rather than a window, and a TV that shows him the decades passing him by in his solitary confinement — the Clinton years, the Bush era, Obama’s election and second inauguration.
He has been framed for the murder of his hated ex-wife. He tries to atone for this in scores of unsent letters to his daughter Mia.
“I deserve your hate,” he scribbles. He cannot mail the letters.
And in between meals (always Chinese dumplings), gassings and shaves, he goes mad.
Then, just as he’s about to make a break for it, he’s released. That’s when the revenge starts.
Lee, working from a Mark Protosevich adaptation, gleefully dives into the violence and depravity here. He’s been waiting decades to torture Samuel L. Jackson (a mysterious mohawked figure). And he re-stages the epic hammer brawl from the first “Oldboy” with brio and brute force.
Elizabeth Olsen plays the kindly nurse who tends to Joe’s wounds after each knife fight and teaches him how to use this newfangled iPhone’s applications to work through his list of suspects — the “who” and maybe the “why” of his confinement.
It’s a film that embraces ugliness — vomit and blood and gruesome death and bodily functions. “Oldboy” does a better job of showing the victim track down his tormentor, but a much worse job at teasing out suspense and intrigue as he does.
Olsen’s beguilingly sexy empathy plays well, and Brolin wholly commits to the part even if he’s never been made to look more slovenly and homely on the screen. Lee peppers the supporting cast with black characters actors and has his cinematographer toss in a few of Lee’s trademark camera tricks.
But it was a dubious enterprise all along, remaking a fairly infamous movie that depends a lot of its surprises. If anything, the new version is even more twisted, with Sharlto Copley, Pom Klementieff, Michael Imperioli and Max Casella filling in around the acting edges.
But Lee, in a sort of humorless send-up of Quentin Tarantino, substitutes kinky for mystery, explicit sex and violence for sex and violence with real shock value. When it comes to this remake, you plainly can’t teach an old dog like Lee new tricks.