Few people would ever accuse Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy of being subtle cinema, but Spike Lee’s remake of the 2003 feature smashes any lingering vestiges of the restrained right into the ground with a bloody, looming hammer. Strangely enough, the opening credits of Oldboy provide some insight into the feature itself – this is “a Spike Lee film,” not “a Spike Lee joint,” and it’s “based on the Korean film,” not “based on Park Chan-wook’s film” or “based on Garon Tsuchiya’s manga.” This is not a unique feature and even its own director isn’t interested in putting his signature touch on it.
As with Chan-wook’s film, Oldboy centers on a seemingly regular man who is abducted, thrown into a prison-like hotel room for two decades, and framed for the heinous murder of his ex-wife. Josh Brolin is effective enough in the role, and he’s got the fiery anger and unswerving drive element of his character down pat. Emotions not fueled by rage and revenge aren’t quite his forte, at least here, but those don’t really come into play into further down the line. For the first act of the film, he’s just about perfect. Brolin’s Joe Doucett is a flabby, drunk loser who thinks that a smooth-talking attitude will help him succeed at work (it won’t) and just yelling about things to his beleaguered ex-wife will get her to shut up (it also won’t). He’s unsympathetic, but he certainly doesn’t deserve his punishment (or, well, does he?).
Once Brolin is tossed into his hotel cell, the film picks up significant momentum, and Oldboy impress when it comes to the sequences used to portray Joe’s imprisonment. While Lee utilizes some familiar bits from the original film, the entire thing is so engrossing and engaging that any recognizability is soon forgotten. Brolin cycles through a believable series of emotions and actions, from depression to anger and back and forth and back and forth, until finally springing into something that resembles action. Current events flip by on his television screen – Bill Clinton’s election, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, Barack Obama’s election, and still more – and the crushing weight of two decades in one room steadily adds up.
Yet, when Joe is finally released, Brolin hasn’t appeared to age much. He actually looks better than before – buffer and with a more suitable haircut and a simmering rage that sort of works for him. It’s a minor quibble, but it showcases some of the shoddiest elements of the film and a continued lack of quality that keeps Oldboy from achieving anything close to craftsmanship. He’s been imprisoned for twenty years. Give him some gray hair. Something. Anything.
Let loose, Joe is taunted by threats against the life of his still-living daughter, who he has observed growing up by way of a cheapy television series that chronicles crushing true crime. Tasked with discovering the identity and reasoning of his captor, Joe sets out on a quest that he thinks will lead to redemption, but which has far more nefarious consequences in store for him. Along the way, he’s joined by his old pal Chucky (Michael Imperioli) and an alluring young new friend, the softhearted Marie (Elizabeth Olsen), who just so happens to be one of the first people he encounters when he’s released from his prison.
Olsen, while a talented and game actress, is saddled with an undercooked part in Marie. Though the make-up of her personality and character is eventually revealed to be a very important part of her role in the film’s action and drama, her motivations are never clear. But while Marie is thinly written to the point of being wholly uninteresting, it is Sharlto Copley as bad guy Adrian who proves that even the most poorly-penned part can be elevated to something special. For the second time in a year, Sharlto Copley turns in a brain-bending, mind-boggling performance as a truly deranged villain. His work here is so over-the-top, so ludicrous, so laughable that it legitimately straddles the line between brilliant and bonkers. It’s easily one of the worst performances of the year, but it’s also instantly and immediately memorable.
The film is peppered with references to Chan-wook’s film – there are still recognizable pieces of plot woven in, from the importance of delivery dumplings and a brief appearance by a squid – and while most of them are welcome and amusing to fans of the first film, some will grate on audiences, like the choice to set parts of the film in and around Chinatown (seemingly to capitalize on the look and feel of the South Korea-set original). While screenwriter Mark Protosevich has stuck to the general aims of the original script, large patches of Adrian’s revenge and reasoning are changed for maximum shock factor, and it certainly delivers when it comes to making audiences want to heave.
The result is a film that is cheesy, trashy, and gross – unlike the original, it doesn’t feel wicked and twisted, it just feels icky, skin-crawling, and invasive without pay-off. A hefty dose of exposition-heavy dialogue don’t help matters much, especially because the film appears to take itself so seriously that wooden lines only make its deficiencies seem more obvious. A series of ugly, uninspired, and unclear fight sequences pepper the middle act of the film, and prove to be just as self-serious and unfulfilling as the more dramatic bits.
The Upside: The imprisonment sequences are stellar, Josh Brolin plays a maniac with some style, Sharlto Copley’s insane performance is beyond entertaining, Lee pays homage to the original film through a series of (mostly) fun nods to Chan-wook’s feature.
The Downside: Each character in the film is lacking in some essential way; the tone of the film frequently veers towards the needlessly exploitative; the script has beefed up shock factor while abandoning compelling or emotional elements; uninspired and cheap-looking fight sequences; overwhelmingly icky, not wildly wicked.
On the Side: Olsen reportedly did not know the ending of the film until she saw it at its New York City premiere, saying of the experience, “I’ve never been more shocked and surprised by an ending since maybe like The Sixth Sense. No one spoiled it for me. No one hinted at it for me. And I got to experience it with just a blank canvas.”