Early in Spike Lee’s Oldboy — which remakes Chan Park-Wook’s 2003 film, itself taken from a Japanese manga — woozy, boozy bad example Joe Doucette (Josh Brolin) is mumbling and stumbling through an unnamed city, passing beneath a sign for a local gun shop that reads “Guns Don’t Kill; People Do.” It’s brief, but it’s there, and there on purpose. Later, Joe begins a night of self-loathing and self-medicating, drinking heavily, screwing up majestically and finally vomiting over himself in the streets. And then things get really bad; Joe is promptly abducted and locked in what looks like a low-rent hotel room, but with no knobs on his sides of the doors and no window but the TV. For 20 years.
When Joe is released two decades later, he’s given hints and harassment, but no clear answers. Someone had him held captive. Someone has now let him go. One of the first things Joe learned about in his captivity was that his wife had been killed with him the No. 1 suspect, his infant daughter safely adopted in the wake of the tragedy. One of the things Joe is wondering is why he was locked up for two decades. But, as the taunting voice on the other end of the line who says they now have his daughter in captivity reminds Joe, Joe should also be asking why, exactly, he was let out …
No, guns don’t kill people; as the saying goes, a gun is only a tool; it is a hard heart that kills. And this film features hearts as hard as steel. Chan’s original Oldboy was a striking departure that expanded outward from the look and story of its black-and-white printed roots, saturated with color and crunchy with grit, every shiny surface giving off the low red gloss of spilled blood. Park’s original, with its mad inventions in its later acts (which Lee also maintains, and which will not be divulged here), felt, for lack of a better word, operatic; the interplay between color and space, brutal violence and deadpan comedy all happen in an arena as gorgeous as it is frightening, with Park’s direction taking the events out of the realm of the literal and into the realm of the tragic.
But Spike Lee doesn’t have the shock of the new on his side, nor does he spin the material here (in a screenplay adapted by Mark Protosevich) either out away from the original or up into a more frenzied state of madness. Josh Brolin’s Joe, unceremoniously dumped into 2013, sets out to get some answers, with the help of a friendly relief worker (Elizabeth Olsen) and the occasional prod from the taunting string-puller he’s hunting (Sharlto Copley). And after 20 years of captivity, Joe can’t see there are rooms within rooms here, and reasons within madness.
Lee’s direction — aided in no small part by cinematographer and frequent Steve McQueen collaborator Sean Bobbitt — is as technically adept as ever; there are gliding shots of painfully protracted hammerfights, as well as Lee’s patented dolly-zoom technique and in one perfectly-composed instance, the frontrunner for best-made, most-disturbing single-take shot of the year. The only thing it seems Lee doesn’t bring to Oldboy is any sense of interest; Lee’s remake feels more like an exercise in studio moneymaking where he can take a paycheck and then get back to making a film he wrote that’s actually about something. Much like David Fincher’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the fact that many American moviegoers refuse to even consider seeing a film with subtitles means that instead of seeing the original, superb and unique Oldboy, Lee has to waste his time on a retread of a film that’s already been made. Mr. Park’s film was mad, but there was a method to its madness; Mr. Lee’s film is mad, but the methods mostly seem to be Mr. Park’s. (Ironically, Oldboy comes at the end of a year that saw Mr. Park release his first English-language film — the gorgeous, Gothic and sublimely strange Stoker — to a mixed reception of critical raves and minimal box office.)
Brolin is good here — better than he is in the snoozy, sentimental Labor Day — and he has just enough rot under his charm (and vice-versa) to make some of the film’s more explicitly gruesome scenes still work. The supporting parts — Olsen, Copley and Samuel L. Jackson most notably — all fill out their predetermined roles. (Again, if Oldboy were an opera — and it is — Brolin would be the heroic tenor, Olsen the loving soprano, Copley the villainous baritone and Jackson the underling bass.) But Oldboy is too violent and strange for mass audiences, while the select few who’ve seen Park’s film will recognize Lee’s work as a beat-for-beat remake that adds almost nothing new while building to the same climax. Vengeful and violent yet repetitive and re-made, Oldboy will either get old fast for newcomers or seem infantile to people who already know Park’s original film. The last time Lee sold out like this, we got The Inside Man, where Lee’s direction turned a glib, breezy thriller into something special; it’s too bad Oldboy winds up being just another bloodsoaked would-be money-maker.