It seems odd for Spike Lee, a filmmaker whose career has certainly been one of invention and originality, to get himself involved in a remake. Stranger still, in “Oldboy” he is remaking a film from South Korea (based on a Japanese manga no less), whose cinema delves into a deep-dish emotionalism, twisted melodrama and sado-masochism that don’t transition well into American cinema.
Indeed even the man who made “Oldboy,” Park Chan-wook, tried to do so with an American film, “Stoker,” released earlier this year, which fell flat.
What did Lee see in the 2003 “Oldboy” by Park (it won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes 2004 from the Quentin Tarantino-lead jury) that made him want to remake someone else’s movie?
I’ll leave that for Lee to explain, who is not exactly shy about promoting his work. You can’t help but see the Korean film peeking through nearly every scene of this new “Oldboy”; what you can’t see is anything connected to Lee or his body of work.
The story has been slightly altered for its American cast especially Josh Brolin who is not the muddled and married middle-class businessman played by Choi Min-shik in the original. He is instead a frat boy gone to seed, a slovenly, divorced, uncouth alcoholic with paunch already beginning to show in his upper body.
Remarkably his Joe Doucette does have a job — remarkable because he clearly drinks at work and no boss would ever let such a drunk represent his firm in pitching a prospective client, Yet there he is, winning and then losing that client due to a stupid remark he would never have made sober.
The loudmouth businessman then goes on a real bender before winding up late that night banging on the door at his favorite tavern run by Michael Imperioli. Then a mysterious Asian woman materializes out of the rain. The next minute he is gone.
Gone for 20 years!
Joe awakens in what appears to be a cheap hotel room but it’s not. It is a prison albeit one with cable TV and a hot shower. He sees no one for the next 20 years. (It was 15 in the Korean film.) He is fed a diet of disgusting Chinese fast-food and gains his only knowledge of the world and his own plight by watching TV.
His plight turns out to be that he’s a wanted man. His ex-wife has been brutally raped and murdered. DNA taken from him while knocked out has been planted at the scene in sufficient quantity that he’s the only suspect. And his little girl has been adopted by foster parents.
He is given a pint of vodka with each meal but gradually weens himself off alcohol and starts getting his act together. Exercise videos help trim away all that body fat.
Martial arts movies turn him into a fighting machine. (More about that implausible notion in a moment.) And the endless writing of unmailed letters to his daughter, by now a young woman, keep his mind sharp.
The remake spends more time on this section of the film and it turns out to be a good idea since you not only get closer to the film’s protagonist, you are made to understand the emotional and mental changes in the man’s character.
Joe has also — in anticipation of the day he escapes and can exact revenge — made a list of people who might be responsible for his cruel predicament. This list turns out to be wildly inaccurate but the fact he can even make such a long list speaks volumes about the life he formerly led.
Then, at the 20-year mark, he is again knocked out and awakens to find himself a free man. He’s been released.
He immediately goes into overdrive to exact revenge on his captor. He is joined in this quest, rather improbably and even more so upon greater reflection, by a young woman, Marie, played by Elizabeth Olsen. She works at a medical clinic and has her own dark and painful past.
Tracing the source of that disgusting Chinese food, our man locates his former jail and its keeper, Samuel L. Jackson, on whom he enacts some measure of revenge. Yet his actual kidnapper (Sharlto Copley) finds Brolin first — he’s always been on his radar — and offers him a deal.
If Joe can figure out within the next five days who the kidnapper is and why he was kidnapped, then the kidnapper will kill himself, give Joe a substantial reward and a full confession to the murder of his wife that clears his name. If he can’t, his daughter will be killed.
The original film is a tragedy about a man who comes face to face with the terrible man he once was. And then he must confront another tragedy which he helped to create but has completely forgotten about.
One fight scene between Brolin and maybe a dozen men, repeated almost as soon as the first one finishes, sees Brolin destroy everyone single-handedly, armed with nothing other than a lethal hammer and his fists of fury.
This can only happen, of course, if no one brings a gun to a fist-fight. Even sillier, in both versions, is the notion that merely watching martial arts movies can turn a viewer into a martial artist extraordinaire. Were that true, all movie critics would have black belts.
What is discouraging about all this is how mechanical the new “Oldboy” is. Lee does these fight scenes as if he intends for them to be jokes with action speeded up and highly choreographed fighters clearly waiting their turn to fake their demise.
Indeed all the bloody mayhem, which will later include a man blowing off half his head with a shotgun, makes little attempt to camouflage fakeness. This may be the film’s concession to American tastes: It serves up a Korean BBQ of sadism and mutilation but makes everything look fake unlike its predecessor.
Where Park’s film motored ahead at a frenetic pace, Lee’s plods ever onward without Brolin getting any opportunity to reflect on his former self. Or at least not until the very end.
At least Lee did not repeat the audacious live octopus eating scene Park forced his actor — and audience — to endure. Brolin merely looks at an octopus in a restaurant tank. He never orders it, thank goodness.
Opens: November 27, 2013 (FilmDistrict)
Production companies: FimDistrict in association with Good Universe presents a Vertical Entertainment/40 Acres and a Mule production
Cast: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, Sharlto Copley, Michael Imperioli, Pom Klementieff, Samuel L. Jackson, Max Casela, James Ransone, Grey Damon
Director: Spike Lee
Screenwriter: Mark Protosevich
Based on a film by: Park Chan-wook, Lim Jun-Hyeong, Hwang Jo-Yun based on a manga by Garon Tsuchiya, Nobuaki Minegishi
Producers: Roy Lee, Doug Davison, Nathan Kahane
Executive producers: Peter Schlessel, John Powers Middleton
Director of photography: Sean Bobbitt
Production designer: Sharon Seymour
Music: Roque Baños
Costume designer: Ruth E. Carter
Editor: Barry Alexander Brown
R rating, 105 minutes