In terms of appeal for an American audience, Park Chan-wook’s 2003 revenge opus Oldboy has plenty to offer. It’s unrelentingly violent, sordid, and mysterious in a way that doesn’t ask much. The central conceit, that a man has been locked away for over a decade for reasons unknown, remains inherently entertaining, if not necessarily compelling. And so now, ten years later, the story has been dusted off, rearranged and edited for its American remake.
Spike Lee lazily directs Park’s tale (itself drawn from a 90s manga by Garon Tsuchiya and Nobuaki Minegishi), throwing up symbolic signposts early on that the Korean original left unspoken. Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) is a drunk and a lout, and Lee spends about twenty minutes making sure the audience knows this; at a dinner meeting, a wasted Doucett palms the leg of a client’s wife, imploring her to spend a weekend with him (and some cocaine, and liquor, and porn), until her husband returns to sort him out. Doucett bails on his daughter’s birthday, loudly announcing the date into the telephone (it’s 1993) just after a lower third had supplied us with the same information. Joe Doucett is terrible for a while longer, then he wakes up in a hotel room. Lee lingers on Doucett’s alcoholism and on his shortcomings as a father in such a hamfisted way that it’s distracting. We see him fight to abandon his daily liquor allowance, and begin writing daily letters to his daughter. Early in his incarceration, Joe sees on TV that he’s been framed for the rape and murder of his wife, and spends the rest of his fifteen years watching his daughter grow up a foster child and regular guest on a true crime show. There’s even a cut to Samuel L. Jackson (as Chaney, a kind of warden for hire), watching Doucett through a monitor in his office, a moment that reveals too much too soon, robbing Doucett’s imprisonment of some measure of its mystery.
Post-release, Doucett sets about finding his captors, singlemindedly obsessed with killing the person who framed him (and whoever else might stand in the way). In Park’s original, the protagonist (Oh Dae-su) seemed almost as though he had to be reminded to seek vengeance, so stunned was he by his release. Lee is more interested in getting to the revenge, and concocts some sequences of violence that rival or even overtake the original. Instead of devouring a live octopus, Doucett is served a platter of mice, steamed alive; instead of pulling his warden’s teeth, he surgically perforates his warden’s neck. What Lee does throughout is merely amplify the earlier film while deadening its creative detail. The wealthy, insane heir who ensnares Oh in the first film becomes a cartoonish billionaire man-child in the remake. The dubious hypnosis that served as the first film’s dubious narrative device is replaced by a fake television series. A resolution that was both disturbing and merciful becomes, in Lee’s telling, some shots of the open road and a little tacky voiceover.
Throughout Oldboy, Lee seems barely invested in his film. Doucett’s young sidekick, a charity health care worker named Marie (Elisabeth Olsen), becomes nothing but a foil for Doucett’s rage and lust. His old best friend, a bar owner named Chucky, only exists to introduce him to a world that’s changed in the last twenty years. Even Jackson seems bored; his character has as much right to revenge as Doucett, but turns down his chance to mete it out in exchange for a sack of money he doesn’t really seem to need. The cartoon billionaire, Sharlto Copley (Adrian Pryce), at least seems unhinged in a more honest way, the heir to a deeply weird lineage and the owner of a mind that might actually concoct such a strange, dark scheme. The action scenes are tight enough, but aren’t treated as avenues for creativity or adventure. Even the film’s big twists fail to land; the reveals are so heavy with taboo that they should have been exciting, but instead the audience finds itself yawning at some deeply troubling shit. Hopefully Oldboy serves its purpose, reaffirming that Lee is a bankable director, one who deserves to make visionary, uncompromising American films, even if he has to cough up the occasional frustrating rehash to get that chance back.