The themes of revenge and redemption feel muddled as Josh Brolin fights his way though an uninspired retooling of the Park Chan-Wook original
“Oldboy” is the second remake in as many months (following Kimberly Peirce's new take on “Carrie”) to claim more fealty to its source material than to its cinematic predecessor, and the second to cower in the shadow of both. Based on the same comic book as Park Chan-Wook's 2005 film of the same name, Spike Lee‘s version offers no extra dimensions to its perfectly effed-up revenge story, instead reducing a brilliant examination of pain inflicted and repaid to the stuff of a slightly twisted star vehicle.
Josh Brolin plays Joe Doucett, a boozy ad executive who scuttles a make-or-break deal after propositioning his client's wife. Commemorating his failure with a drunken bender, Joe passes out in the street, only to awaken in a hotel room he soon discovers is inescapable. With no outside contact other than the mysterious person who delivers his meals, Joe soon begins reflecting on his wasteful self-destruction and decides to turn his life around.
But after he is unceremoniously released back into the world some 20 years later, Joe struggles to reacclimate himself, eventually crossing paths with a benevolent physician named Marie (Elizabeth Olsen). Enlisting Marie's help, Joe sets out to find his captors, to find out not just why he was imprisoned but, perhaps more crucially, why they decided to let him go.
Although he eventually incorporates his trademark dolly shot into Joe's disoriented navigation of the world, Spike Lee feels mostly like a director for hire on “Oldboy,” at least in the sense that neither the material nor his approach indicates a deep level of personal investment. Lee vacillates between cinematic cool and visceral brutality with the characters and the action, indulging in theatrical flourishes — such as, well, pretty much everything Sharlto Copley (“Elysium”) does as Joe's adversary — that bounce awkwardly off of the rest of the story's physical and emotional rawness.
Part of the problem is that Mark Protosevich's script does little to convey the duration – and significance — of 20 years’ imprisonment, with Brolin's performance doing even less. Brolin gamely gains and loses weight as a signifier of his physical transformation, but other than the circumference of his gut, Joe seems scarcely 30 days older at the end of his imprisonment than at the beginning.
Moreover, there's an absence of insight – of some crucial epiphany – that drives his post-release choices. Self-improvement, depicted here as physical conditioning, trains the body but leaves the mind unaffected, and Joe's sense of revenge overshadows anything resembling an actual new outlook on life, or at least a meaningful level of compassion that he may have lacked prior to being imprisoned.
That said, Brolin's complete embrace of Joe's single-minded vengeance makes for some electrifying fight sequences, especially a centerpiece showdown with a small army of assailants. It effectively reworks the side-scrolling action of Chan-Wook's hammer fight as a more modern video game brawl, as Joe squares off with bad guys wielding knives and 2x4s as he climbs down from the top floor of a fortress-like building to the ground.
But when the film's focus is meant to be more on the emotional than physical repercussions of revenge, such set pieces ultimately fall short of reinforcing real ideas, other than “getting whacked with sticks and boards sure does hurt.”
The idea of being driven insane by betrayal – or even by avenging betrayal – is recurrent in the film, and it's provocative enough for at least two films, even two based on the same material. But Lee's failure to choose between movie-ness and deeper meaning leaves the concept under-explored, which is why his version of “Oldboy,” in part and as a whole, is momentarily gobsmacking but never quite as resonant as it should be.