Revenge, like octopus, is a dish best served cold, but Spike Lee’s disappointingly straight remake of “Oldboy” is a lukewarm meal at best. Granted, with its hammered heads and severed tongues, Park Chan-wook’s gleefully sadistic 2003 thriller was itself little more than a grotesque adolescent wallow, but it certainly didn’t want for novelty or style — neither of which, alas, factors much into this Westernized and depersonalized genre outing. Serving up the original’s baroque twists and equally baroque violence with a studied competence verging on boredom, the FilmDistrict release will be appreciated primarily by viewers unfamiliar with the material, though with minimal anticipation and likely poor word of mouth, it’s unlikely to wrap its tentacles around the box office for long.
It’s been 10 years since Park unleashed the second and most famous installment in his “Vengeance Trilogy” with “Oldboy,” an arresting if dubious hybrid of grindhouse extremity and arthouse cred that turned heads and stomachs when it won the Grand Prix at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. Since then, various other South Korean pulp mavens have come to international prominence, some of whom have far surpassed Park’s cult favorite in terms of emotional and dramatic heft (Bong Joon-ho’s “The Host” and “Mother”) or sheer white-knuckle intensity (Kim Jee-woon’s “I Saw the Devil,” Na Hong-jin’s “The Yellow Sea”). But no Asian thriller of the past decade has exerted quite the same feverish grip on fanboy imaginations as “Oldboy,” or generated as much American remake interest; DreamWorks made an early attempt in 2008 that attracted the interest of Will Smith and Steven Spielberg before getting scuttled amid legal woes related to the film rights.
That aborted production, which would have mined the original Japanese manga series for inspiration rather than simply updating the Korean film, might well have taken this twisty tale of extreme payback in an intriguing new direction. But as written by “I Am Legend’s” Mark Protosevich (once in talks to script the Spielberg version), and helmed by Lee on director-for-hire autopilot, this “Oldboy” adds only a few negligible wrinkles to Park’s storyline while reproducing some of his most iconic images and sequences with uninspired fidelity.
The unfortunate protagonist this time around is Joe Doucette (Josh Brolin), a heavy-drinking ad exec and absentee father who’s quickly flushing his life down the toilet when the story begins in 1993. Whether butting heads with his ex-wife or making a drunken pass at the spouse of a potential client, Joe has a talent for making enemies, something that becomes readily apparent when he awakens from his latest stupor to find himself locked in a small, beige-walled room with a bed, a bathroom, a TV and no windows. For the next 20 years (compared with the original’s 15) this sub-Motel 6 hellhole will be his prison, his food shoved under the door each day by an anonymous attendant, his every action monitored and at times manipulated from afar by some unseen, all-powerful nemesis.
The TV becomes Joe’s means of observing the passage of time — not only through historical markers such as 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, but also through news reports of his ex-wife’s murder (he’s the prime suspect) and the foster-care fate of his young daughter, Mia. Long before Joe’s sentence is up, something snaps inside him, motivating him to quit drinking (his captor has kept the booze flowing) and whip himself into shape. By the time he’s suddenly released in 2013, he has become the proverbial lean, mean killing machine, fiercely determined not only to find Mia, but also to figure out who imprisoned him and why. Unfortunately for Joe, his enemy wants him to figure that out, too.
Given his ability to look by turns pathetically broken and totally badass (plus he can rock a buzz cut and what looks like a 10-year beard), Brolin is as ideal an actor as any to steer viewers through “Oldboy’s” grisly funhouse of horrors. Yet while he’s up to the role’s intense physical and emotional demands, the star seems to hint at demons seething beneath the surface without fully embracing them, never tapping into the raw, animal-like ferocity that made Choi Min-sik such a frighteningly human monster. In similar fashion, Lee and Protosevich have made a picture that, although several shades edgier than the average Hollywood thriller, feels content to shadow its predecessor’s every move while falling short of its unhinged, balls-out delirium.
And so it comes as no surprise when Joe quickly befriends an attractive young woman, Marie (Elizabeth Olsen), who, even for a social worker, seems improbably willing to help out this dangerous individual. Once again our hero follows a trail of dumplings across a sketchy urban wasteland (the film was shot in New Orleans, though the city is never named), leading up to the film’s most squirm-inducing sequence, in which he tortures the crook (a mouthy Samuel L. Jackson) in charge of the human storage facility where he was held. (One small difference: Rather than resorting to amateur dentistry, Joe perforates the guy’s neck.)
And while the notorious octopus-slurping scene gets a brief nod rather than a full-on restaging (understandable in this non-Korean context), no “Oldboy” would be complete without a cleverly staged long take in which a lone madman with a hammer takes down an entire army of thugs. Unlike the chaotic original setpiece, which was confined to a dank, overcrowded hallway, this three-and-a-half-minute scene — rehearsed for six weeks and shot at a former U.S. Navy site in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward — plays like a sleek, carefully choreographed exercise, the action staged in relatively neat formations and spilling out on multiple floors. As lensed by d.p. Sean Bobbitt (shooting in widescreen on a variety of celluloid formats), it’s an impressive but empty display, workmanlike even in its virtuosity.
Joe and Marie’s increasingly intimate detective work (aided by a bartender buddy, nicely played by Michael Imperioli) leads to the premature revelation of Joe’s tormenter (Sharlto Copley, compellingly weird as ever), setting in motion a third-act gauntlet of flashbacks and reversals that, apart from a more disturbing backstory and a less ambiguous denouement, remains wearyingly faithful to the original telling. Even “Oldboy” virgins caught off-guard by the closing twists may get the sense that they’re not following a story so much as a template, and a creaky one at that, absent the stylistic verve that made Park’s film, gratuitous and self-satisfied as it was, something more than the sum of its contrivances. With the exception of one early sight gag embedded in Sharon Seymour’s otherwise nondescript production design, Lee’s directorial signature here could scarcely feel less pronounced, his attention less engaged. This time, it’s impersonal.