A Hollywood remake of Oldboy sounds daunting, improbable and guaranteed to fail. Originally made in 2003 by South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook, the movie, inspired by a popular manga, delved into thematic territory American movies rarely tread, had an unconventional plot structure and style and included instances of violence and other things (such as the eating of a live octopus on camera, its tentacles wriggling out of a man’s mouth) that would never pass muster with the ratings board — or, for that matter, the mainstream U.S. movie-going public.
One of the surprises of Spike Lee’s Oldboy is just how dark the film dares to get. Based on a sly script by Mark Protosevich ( Thor, I Am Legend), the story differs just enough from the original to give the new film its own identity. The setup is identical: In 1993, a loutish, alcoholic businessman named Joe (Josh Brolin) passes out and wakes up in a windowless hotel room, with only a television set, a Bible and an Encyclopedia Britannica for entertainment. Three times a day, a plate of food is slid under his door. Breakfast and lunch vary, but dinner is always the same: dumplings. No one speaks to him, no one interacts with him. We see time go by via images on the TV — 9/11, Obama’s election and, most troubling of all, a news report that reveals his estranged wife was murdered and all evidence points to him.
Over the span of 20 years, Joe goes from disbelief to anger to despair to resignation. On an Unsolved Mysteries-style show revisiting his wife’s murder, he learns his daughter, now 23, has been adopted by loving parents and is a talented musician. He writes letters to her constantly, begging her not to believe what she’s been told about him, but they remain unsent.
And then one day, Joe suddenly wakes up inside a trunk in an open field, dressed in a sharp suit, with a cellphone, a wad of $100 bills and the rest of his belongings. Park’s Oldboy was the middle film in a trilogy of pictures about revenge: The bulk of his movie followed the protagonist, who was rendered nearly insane and bestial by his imprisonment, as he set out to dole out payback to whoever kidnapped him without motivation and held him captive.
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Lee’s version, too, is about revenge, although this Oldboy is shaped more like a detective story, with bursts of astonishing, brutal action. The movie throws in small but effective wrinkles and twists to throw off even those who know where the story is headed: It’s a neat bit of sleight-of-hand filmmaking.
Brolin, who got into fantastic shape for the role, is convincing as the businessman turned ultimate fighter — a bull running through china shops in search of his daughter. Lee reprises Oldboy’s signature scene, shot in one take, in which Joe takes on a never-ending wave of opponents in a narrow hallway armed only with a hammer (although Lee here again tries something different, he can’t top Park’s setpiece). Elizabeth Olsen is tender and believable as a social worker who believes Joe’s wild story and tries to help him on his quest, and Samuel L. Jackson kills as the man who operates the hotel-prison facility where Joe was held (as usual, Lee brings about the energetic best in Jackson; he has only two scenes, but you won’t forget either of them).
Lee peppers his movie with sly homages to the original (look for a cameo by the octopus, for example; still alive, happily) and he figures out a way to incorporate some of the more extreme elements of Park’s film (such as the infamous tongue scene) in ways that are more palatable to the multiplex. He also comes up with some improvements, replacing a near-unwatchable torture scene with something simpler yet more gruesome. So much of Oldboy works so well that it’s a huge disappointment when the movie loses its nerve in the climax, opting for a radically different and less subversive ending than the original. It’s not clear whether the change was the filmmakers’ idea or whether it was a compromise they had to make to get the movie financed. Park’s film ended on a note of beautiful, poetic horror designed to compel and repel. Lee’s Oldboy closes with a semi-happy shrug — an ending that is careful to tie up all loose ends and, in the process, makes the tense picture that preceded it easier to forget.