28 years later, and Josh Brolin’s still stealing odd-looking bikes to follow his antagonists. Yes, I just referred to 1985’s The Goonies, another movie in which Brolin plays an almost unwilling participant in events borne of someone else’s whimsy. However, Oldboy is no kid’s treasure hunt; instead, Brolin’s character, Joe Doucette, is given mere hours to find out why he’s been mysteriously imprisoned for the last 20 years. The latest film from director Spike Lee finds Joe wrapped up in a violent mystery that grows ever more darker the further down the rabbit hole he goes.
As an American interpretation of a Korean film (so the opening credits state), Lee’s Oldboy doesn’t waste a lot of time on imagery and implication. Instead, it goes straight up the gut as we watch Joe crumble under the weight of his banishment, stripped of all he holds dear, barely hanging on by a thread of hope that he’ll one day see his daughter again. The only link to the outside world is the television in his cell, which seems to alternate between exercise programs, newscasts (which mark the passage of time), and an “Unsolved Mysteries”-type show which seems to exist only to provide Joe with updates about his daughter and the murder of his ex-wife, for which he’s been framed. Released almost as quickly and inexplicably as he was imprisoned, he only has his old school friend Chucky (Michael Imperioli) and medic Marie (Elizabeth Olsen) to rely on for any kind of help. However, an unseen character is still holding the marionette control bars over Joe and forcing him dance to a very seedy, nasty tune.
Knowing enough about the original film can color and help fill in the blanks left by Lee and screenwriter Mark Protosevich, but it won’t help everything. In his 36-year career, Lee has managed his first attempt at a remake successfully, yet it finds itself in strange territory. The original Korean Oldboy, released in 2003, relied heavily on nuance and subtlety, slowly building to an altogether shocking and disturbing climax. Lee forsakes that for viscera and obviousness, which plays perfectly to American audiences, but it misses out on some of the flavor. While maintaining the themes of revenge, isolation, and helplessness, Lee charges ahead with full steam and propels the story from one beat to the next, never dwelling long enough in any given moment to fully realize the horrible gravity of Joe’s situation and his utter lack of control over his life.
Usually, I like to ask myself the following question about remakes: What does this version have to say that the earlier version didn’t? In the case of Lee’s Oldboy the answer is, well, nothing. Aside from a downshift in brutality and more of Joe’s character exposition, there’s not much to really champion about this new version. The rich themes of the original are not carried over and dismissed almost as quickly as Joe’s glance at a live octopus in a fish tank (a nod to the Korean version). It’s not what I would have called “heavy, deep, and real,” as I was so fond of saying back in high school. The only things saving Oldboy from being a complete write-off are Lee’s kinetic camera and the performances he’s captured. Brolin, Olsen, and District 9’s Sharlto Copley are at their wild-eyed, engaging best as the former two play their parts as Copley’s pawns in his sick game. Lee has managed to make a very good-looking film with some good ingredients, but there’s a quite a lot missing if it was going to be a classic dish.