The problem with remakes is that you can’t “un-see” the original film. And that’s especially true of Chan-wook Park’s searing 2003 hit, “Oldboy.”
Spike Lee’s new version deviates in a lot of minor and a few important ways. But try as one might, a viewer cannot shake memories of the righteous and horrific violence and the shattering twists of the original.
It’s still the story of a man drugged, kidnapped and locked up, with no human contact, for 20 years. He gets out, furious and foaming at the mouth for revenge.
But this new “Oldboy” has a much longer prologue, suggesting that Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) is enough of a drunken lout to actually deserve his life-altering fate. And there’s a Hollywood style spoon-fed epilogue that goes beyond merely “explaining” the reasons for what came before.
It doesn’t so much ruin the movie as misunderstand certain fundamentals about why the first version worked so very well.
Ad agency Joe drinks on the job and then, in an insane touch, comes on to a big client’s wife. Then he wakes up in a room with no phone, a rotating painting of an outdoor scene rather than a window, and a TV that shows him the decades passing him by in his solitary confinement – Clinton to Obama.
He has been framed for the murder of his hated ex-wife.
Then, just as he’s about to make a break for it, he’s released. That’s when the revenge starts.
Lee gleefully dives into the violence and depravity here. He’s been waiting decades to torture Samuel L. Jackson (a mysterious mohawked figure). And he re-stages the epic hammer brawl from the original.
Elizabeth Olsen plays the kindly nurse who tends to Joe’s wounds after each knife fight and teaches him how to use this newfangled iPhone’s applications to work through his list of suspects – the “who” and maybe the “why” of his confinement.
But Lee, in a sort of humorless send-up of Quentin Tarantino, substitutes kinky for mystery, explicit sex and violence for sex, and violence with real shock value. When it comes to this remake, you can’t teach an old dog like Lee new tricks.