Not since the 2009 film of Cormac McCarthy’s grim post-apocalyptic “The Road,” with its not-so-subtle allusions to cannibalism, has there been a Hollywood release less appropriate for Thanksgiving than Spike Lee’s remake of Park Chan-wook’s cult favorite “Oldboy,” the grisly second installment of the Korean director’s so-called revenge trilogy. True, the famous octopus-eating sequence of the original is replaced here by little more than a passing allusion, and the actual culinary moments are less unsavory. But the ghoulish quality of the material is certainly retained if sometimes tweaked, and so are the plot turns involving incest, which—despite the lack of humans devouring other humans—make it pretty unsuitable as family fare.
Apart from that, Lee’s “Oldboy” is a respectable piece of filmmaking from a purely technical perspective. It’s well shot by cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, apart from some regrettably artsy shots from above; it moves reasonably well as edited by Barry Alexander Brown (although one might wonder about the repeated montages of a motel sign in a couple late scenes); and it boasts a couple of intriguing sets, one modernistic and opulent and the other deliberately dingy, thanks to production designer Sharon Seymour, art director Peter Borck, set designer Trinh Vu and decorator Maggie Martin. It also profits from Roque Banos’ effective score, with its occasional echoes of both Herrmann and Goldsmith.
And Lee directs the tale—of a man who’s kidnapped and secretly imprisoned for twenty year (as well as framed for murdering his ex-wife), only to emerge after being abruptly freed two decade later as an avenging angel out to discover and take vengeance on his unknown abductor—with the craft and efficiency he always brings to his more standard pictures, as opposed to the passionately personal projects that are much messier. His cast is a solid one too, although Josh Brolin isn’t really convincing as what one would have to calculate as a twenty-five-year old in the “prologue” in which he’s a hard-drinking, womanizing ad executive. (Grey Damon doesn’t quite persuade us that he’s Brolin’s eighteen-year old self either, though the manner in which Lee stages the flashback scenes in which he appears is nicely eerie.) But Brolin certainly does better as the muscular forty-something of the larger part of the story, though one will wonder whether even he could take on the small army of bad-guys he dispatches with a hammer in the infamous set-piece carried over from Park’s film, well choreographed by Lee and fight coordinator JJ Perry and stunt coordinator Mark Norby, though in a style different from the original’s.
Good performances are also handed in by Elizabeth Olson, as the young woman—here an aide at a Skid Row clinic rather than a waitress—who befriends the released Joe Doucett (as Oh Dae-su is rechristened here), although the alacrity with which she does so is utterly incredible; by James Ransone as the dedicated doctor with whom she works; by Linda Emond as the erstwhile headmistress of Doucett’s old prep school; and by Michael Imperioli, who despite an unflattering wig delivers a nice turn as Joe’s barkeep friend, an old school chum himself. On the other hand, Samuel L. Jackson, also sporting a strange hairdo, delivers one of his more brutally over-the-top turns as Chaney the warden of the illegal private jail where Joe’s kept for two decades (although he could hardly have been subtle in the grisly scene in which Doucett finally tortures him, here with a box cutter rather than pliers). And Sharlto Copley, as the ultimate villain, seems to be doing a Clifton Webb imitation so extreme that it’s likely to provoke giggles.
In fact Lee’s “Oldboy” has quite a few virtues, including the garishly effective gore effects from Guy Clayton and Dottie Starling. But it has one major defect: the script by Mark Protosevich turns what had been a weird, bizarrely nightmarish tale, with lots of unexplained links and strange lapses of logic, into what amounts to a sort of Hitchcockian thriller in which the narrative connections are all tidily spelled out; a few hallucinatory sequences as the explanations pour forth don’t change the fact that it largely conventionalizes the absolutely gonzo original. And paradoxically, that approach makes the whole thing seem more preposterous and absurd than ever. Lee’s “Oldboy” is harder to swallow than the octopus in Park’s version.
The upshot is that the movie is likely to send the fanboys who positively revere the 2003 film to their Blu-ray players to reassure themselves that their enthusiasm was not misplaced, while convincing anybody who hasn’t seen Park’s picture not to bother doing so. And that’s probably the most unfortunate thing about this unnecessary, inferior remake.