The Korean film "Oldboy" has been a hot property for years, with various directors (Steven Spielberg) and stars (Will Smith) previously attached to the project. The violent tale of vengeance and all-around ickiness became an underground classic for its shocking ending and stylish direction by Chan-wook Park. So it’s surprising that the director to finally score the gig to redo the film is none other than Spike Lee - who isn’t really known for gritty violent thrillers.
"Oldboy" the remake is written by Mark Protosevich ("Thor") and sticks closely to the original, with a few tweaks here and there to fit an American audience. Josh Brolin stars as Joe Doucett, a pompous and arrogant advertising agent with an estranged wife, a 3-year-old daughter, and an anger management problem fueled by alcoholism. After a disastrous business dinner, he stumbles through an Asian night market and picks up a prostitute. But when he wakes up hours later he finds himself in a jail cell that looks like a hotel room.
With a TV readily available, he sees a reality show about famous murders and discovers that he is wanted for the murder of his ex-wife. He also sees that his daughter Mia has been adopted by a loving couple, where she has thrived. Years later, he sees an update on the "murder mystery," where his teenage daughter is interviewed and admits to having a hard time forgiving her father. With no idea when he will be released and no outside contact with the world, Joe begins writing letters to his daughter, gets sober, and trains his body to be a fighting machine. He then digs a tunnel so he can escape.
But before he does, he is drugged and wakes up in a trunk in the middle of a field. Seeing the prostitute he met in the distance, he runs after her asking who has done this to him. He ends up losing her at a mobile medical facility. There, he meets Marie (Elizabeth Olsen) whose penchant for helping people in trouble causes her to give Joe her card, because she can see he might need some help. Alas, he does, and she comes to the rescue when he inexplicably passes out at the bar of an old friend. While she nurses him back to health, she reads his letters to his daughter and decides she can help him. The two team up to uncover exactly who imprisoned him, and why.
For those fearful that their beloved cult film will be ruined, you can rest easy. As movies go, it’s an entertaining and mysterious ride that keeps you intrigued and invested throughout. It’s hard to know how audience members who haven’t seen the original will take to it, and if they will be as stunned by the ending as those of us who saw the original were. Protosevich does his best to create more of a maze for Joe to travel through -- that should throw off those that can sniff out a movie’s twists and turns. Some of it works, some of it doesn’t, but it’s such an original story that it’s enjoyable regardless.
Brolin is terrific as a man who is all burly unhealthiness and turns himself into a hunky killing machine all in the name of revenge. He goes through a plethora of emotions and he believably takes us through them all, even when some of them have to be rushed in order to get through to the "20 Years Later" mark. Olsen keeps proving she’s a smart new talent. While she has an arc to go through here as well, she still stands as more of a side-kick, but in that she plays against Brolin beautifully.
The weak link here is Sharlto Copley who (early on) is revealed to be Joe’s captor, Adrian Price. But, of course, we don’t know why, and he proposes a game to Joe in order for him to find out. The problem is that Copley plays the character as a cartoon complete with goofy facial hair, a weird voice, and such a sneering delivery to his lines that it provokes snickers instead of fear.
Lee’s usual directorial qualities are mostly hidden here as he changes up his normal style for something more standard -- which isn’t a bad thing, but a "Spike Lee Joint" this is not. (It’s actually referred to as a "Spike Lee Film.") He allows artistic flourishes here and there and creates a gritty atmosphere as opposed to the slick style of the original. Which is fine, because it all works. In fact, there’s nothing really bad here except a few cheesy moments and a villain that acts like Mr. Burns from "The Simpsons."
Many fans of the original will bemoan the fact that the film was made, but at least they did a decent job of bringing the story to a wider audience. And what a story it is: In a time of generic revenge thrillers that hit all the expected beats and rely on bloody fist fights for their action sequences, "Oldboy" gives us something new and fresh, despite the fact that it’s a remake. Whether you choose to watch the original or the remake is up to you, but you’re in for a stunning ride!