Spike Lee goes director-for-hire in Oldboy, a handsomely shot, nicely acted but ultimately perfunctory remake of Park Chan-wook's 2003 Korean gut-punch. Josh Brolin is the man imprisoned in a room for twenty years before being released to track down his tormentor. Lee gives frequent nods to the original while adding a bit of his own flair. Those familiar with the Korean Oldboy will find it difficult to divorce themselves from that film's shocking mystery, and this remake ultimately feels like a connect-the-dots detective drama. The violence and disparity on display feel tame after a decade with Chan-wook's film, and only the uninitiated will be surprised where the film ends up. Brolin gives a dedicated performance, particularly as a boozy asshole in the opening scenes, and supporting players Samuel L. Jackson, Elizabeth Olsen and Sharlto Copley are certainly adequate in their roles. I hate to echo the chorus of doubters, but Oldboy really didn't need to be remade. I was never bored with Lee's revision, but it does very little to warrant its existence.
Things begin well enough, with Brolin commanding the screen as callous ad exec Joe Doucett. Joe skewers a meeting with a big client by hitting on the man's wife, then drunkenly stumbles through the streets before passing out in his own vomit in a gutter. He awakens to find a woman standing under a yellow umbrella. The film then cuts to a dingy, budget hotel-esque room with a poster asking what the management can do to improve Joe's stay. The doors are locked, the windows are fake, and the only link to the outside world is the slot where a unknown hand deposits cheap Chinese food and vodka for Joe each day. Joe spends the first couple of years in a drunken, sweat-stained stupor after discovering he is the prime suspect in his ex-wife's murder. A news drama about the murder and his orphan daughter spurs Joe to take control of his life, and he begins writing undelivered letters to this lost daughter, vowing to escape his prison and make amends. Twenty years after being locked away, Joe is dumped in a field with cash and a cell phone to begin his rampage of revenge.
Something about the storytelling in Lee's film is off; as if this Oldboy is content to jump from one dramatic signpost to the next. Instead of allowing the audience to uncover secrets alongside Joe, the film simply tells viewers what they need to know. Joe soon stumbles upon recovering-addict nurse Marie (Olsen), who helps Joe piece together his ruined life alongside Joe's former friend Chucky (Michael Imperioli). By all accounts, Joe was a cocky prick since youth, and the list of possible tormentors is a mile long. As Joe and Marie leaf through old yearbooks and long-forgotten memories, a mysterious stranger (Copley) monitors Joe's whereabouts. Jackson's character is revealed as a player in Joe's torture, and he is one of the first casualties on Joe's road to redemption. Lee dresses up his villain's league in bizarre, faux-future garb, but it all feels very hollow. The Korean film shocked with visuals and narrative, but Lee's Oldboy finds its impact lessened by hollow imitation and a lack of imagination.
It's hard to discuss Oldboy without commenting on its ending. SPOILERS: I hoped Lee might change the story somewhat or at least add a new twist to the sicko-incest climax. That isn't the case, and I couldn't help but anticipate exactly what was coming from the get-go. SPOILERS END. That's the problem with remaking a film like Oldboy; nothing Lee does can top the original. The new hammer vs. goon fight feels bloodless and lethargic, and Lee makes the odd decision to shoot most of said fight through a fence. Brolin is quite good, however, and makes few missteps. I really liked the angry drunk he plays in the film's early reels, and this material is the only unexpected addition to Oldboy. The recycled narrative and lack of fresh energy by Lee undercut the film's impact. Steven Spielberg and Will Smith at one time flirted with shooting this remake, and I can't help but wonder what that film might have been like. I think Lee is a talented director whose outspokenness occasionally distracts from his work, but he is an odd choice for this material. Lee proved with Inside Man that he could direct a studio project, but nothing in his repertoire makes him particularly qualified to tackle this material. You don't remake a film like Oldboy unless you have fresh ideas. Neither Lee nor his screenwriter, Mark Protosevich, does, and this lack of purpose makes Oldboy a forgettable retread.
The 2.40:1/1080p/AVC-encoded image has a flat, sterile look with plenty of grain, which is no accident. Lee paints his hotel-prison scenes in depressing neutral colors, and this is no vacation for Joe Doucett. Ugly carpet and wallpaper aside, I suspect this transfer replicates the film's intended look. Detail and texture are solid, and black levels are strong. This is not an outwardly attractive image, but there is no digital manipulation in sight or any anomalies to indicate that this is anything other than what Lee shot.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix gets the job done with good effects separation and crystal-clear dialogue. The surround speakers are used for action hits and ambient noise, and the score is nicely rendered. English and English SDH subs are included.
Sony throws in an UltraViolet digital copy, but the included extras are minimal: The Making of Oldboy (16:52/HD) is a standard EPK featurette, and Transformation (2:11/HD), Talking Heads (2:40/HD), and Workout Video (0:49/HD) are little more than extended trailers. There are also a couple of superfluous Alternate and Deleted Scenes (11:46 total/HD).
Spike Lee's box office bomb Oldboy is less a bad film than an unnecessary one. It's hard to top Park Chan-wook's original, and Josh Brolin's performance is the only thing of note about this paint-by-numbers remake. The mystery and gut-punch climax are tempered by a lack of imagination, and it's hard to recommend Oldboy when the original is readily available. Rent It if you are curious.