Based on the South Korean film of the same name, which was itself based on the “Old Boy” manga by Garon Tsuchiya and Nobuaki Minegishi, “Oldboy” centers on Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin), a womanizing alcoholic ad exec who wakes up with one hell of a hangover, trapped in a hotel room without any discernible way of escape. There he remains for twenty grueling years, eating the same fried dumplings every day, watching the same television programs every day, living life on a never-ending loop. It gets worse: Joe learns that he’s been framed for the rape and murder of his ex-wife, with his infant daughter Mia witness to the crime.
About five years into his imprisonment, Joe watches a TV special about Mia’s new life. She lives with a caring couple, blissfully unaware of what happened to her mother and father. The program shakes Joe out of his self-loathing, and directs him toward something more productive. He vows to better himself physically and mentally, training every single day inside his luxurious prison cell with only one purpose in mind: Vengeance against his captors and the people who killed Mia’s mother.
Eventually, Joe gets that opportunity. One day, he wakes up inside of a box, mysteriously abandoned in the middle of a green field. He’s equipped with a fine-tailored suit, a fresh-new haircut, a well-stocked wallet and a brand-new smartphone. When Joe makes contact with his captors, he’s told that total vengeance will be his if he can answer two questions: what is his captor’s name, and why did he imprison him for twenty years? But as the journey progresses, both Joe and the viewer learn that there’s a third, unspoken question that must be answered: Why did Joe’s captors set him free?
Those are the three questions that torture Joe throughout “Oldboy’s” 104-minute runtime. But there’s a fourth question that plagues only the viewer: Why does this movie exist?
There is no good answer, beyond, hey, money! “Oldboy” comes with name recognition thanks to its classic predecessors. Clearly, there’s hope that fans of the original film and manga will flock to Lee’s “Oldboy,” either out of genuine interest, morbid curiosity, or some combination of the two. But the movie quickly establishes that it completely lacks the original’s teeth, if you’ll forgive the obvious reference.
Sure, there’s blood. Lots and lots of it. As Doucett, Brolin racks up a body-count that’s nearly impossible to put a number on, though perhaps some enterprising infographic artist will come along to do just that in the coming weeks. His first order of business upon leaving the box is to lay a supreme beat-down on a bunch of nearby athletes, for basically no good reason except that they’re physically in his way. There are no repercussions of this act of violence as the movie wears on. Later, Lee recreates the famous one-take hallway action scene from the original “Oldboy,” to less impressive effect, as the camera swoops and follows Brolin’s battle throughout the multi-layered set. It lacks the charm and brawler-game nostalgia of the original scene, but it’s there, because, well, you can’t have an “Oldboy” remake without the iconic beats, right?
Well, not exactly. The new “Oldboy” gets rid of or changes many of the original’s signatures. If you’re looking for octopus? Look elsewhere. If you’re looking for dental work? Same deal. (Although, to its credit, the remake’s version of the hammer-torture scene is brutal in its own unique, borderline-unwatchable way; it’s one of few worthwhile scenes in the movie.) Not that anyone wanted Lee to make a beat-for-beat remake of “Oldboy” (or any remake at all, for that matter), but he cuts those moments and doesn’t fill in the gaps with any of the weird color that makes Park Chan-wook’s film such a standout.
Actually, there is at least one weird, colorful component to speak of: Sharlto Copley’s turn as multimillionaire and professional sadist named Adrian Pryce. The South African actor plays Pryce as if he’s in a different film than everybody around him. He speaks with a velvety voice, almost as if he’s playing a castrated character. His South African accent slips out from time to time, reminding you of happier times, like “District 9.” It’s hard to watch without laughing at all the wrong beats. I’d love to see the movie that Copley’s Pryce actually belongs to, because it’s certainly not this one.
No, Copley’s Pryce simply doesn’t coexist well with Brolin’s deadly-serious performance, or Elizabeth Olsen’s Elizabeth Olsen performance. Brolin and Olsen are both totally fine as Doucett and helpful stranger Marie respectively, but nothing greater than that. They’re both subdued, especially in contrast to Copley’s mustache-twirling turn. Both sides of the equation can work on their own, but they collide horribly when put in the same space.
Speaking of colliding horribly, the ending deserves a mention. The answer to question number three — why was Joe released — is fundamentally the same as the answer in the original “Oldboy.” They go there. But it’s such a delicate, horrible answer, that it can only be palatable and acceptable if served up properly. The answer can only work and make sense if you care about the hero and, more importantly, the villain, at least to a certain extent. You need to buy the character. You need to understand his trauma, even if you don’t relate to it. Without giving the viewer sufficient reasons to feel for both of these people, the answer just comes across as gross for grossness’ sake.
That’s what happens here. Lee provides no finesse. There’s no follow-through. There’s no art to the revelation, nothing that says, “This is a Spike Lee joint.” Instead, it’s served up like a heaping hot plate of Mr. and Mrs. Tenorman Chili. It shocks and appalls and all but screams, “I made you eat your parents! I made you eat your parents!” It doesn’t make you stop and think and ache, because the movie never works hard enough to make you care about Joe, and never works “at all” to make you care about Pryce. The great revelation simply exists to laugh in your face.
In fact, maybe that’s why this “Oldboy” exists. Maybe it’s here to laugh in your face. It’s a movie that does nothing better than the original. It pivots this way where the original pivoted that way from time to time, but the new twists and turns never lead anywhere worthwhile.
“Who cares?” some cynical executive asks in reply. “Why does any of that matter, when all we need to do is put some butts in seats?”
That’s a frustrating answer. Not as frustrating as twenty years of solitary confinement, and not frustrating enough to reconsider my position on hammers as dental instruments, but frustrating all the same.
“Oldboy” is in theaters now.
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