You'd think that a guy trapped in a hotel room for 20 years would find a better movie to be in once he got out, right?
'Oldboy,' Spike Lee's remake of the Park Chan-wook cult film from 2003, is a fairly rotten film, which is strange because it is very similar to the rather effective original. Sometimes, though, there's something gained in the translation.
As an American watching the original 'Oldboy,' the difference in setting and language was enough for me to buy-in on the ridiculous premise. Seeing familiar faces like Michael Imperioli and Samuel L. Jackson struggle to find an appropriate tone for this oddball flick is only the most noticeable problem. Pick at that scab and all the pus starts oozing out of this far-fetched and needlessly gross enterprise.
We open with Josh Brolin in 1993. He's an account exec in advertising – a sleazy drunk who urinates in the street and hits on his clients' wives. Stumbling home one night (the night of his daughter's third birthday) he is seduced and abducted by a gorgeous woman with a crazy looking umbrella.
He awakens locked in a mysterious hotel room. There he stews for twenty years, with no contact to the outside world other than a television, food and booze slipped through a door each day. In time, he sculpts his body to perfection and adjusts his mind to clarity. And, just as he's worked out an escape, he finds himself deposited inside a trunk in the middle of a park.
He's prone to violence and is actually thinking fairly straight for a man that ought to be a babbling mess. But, he's only got one thing on his mind: vengeance. Well, make that two things. He also wants to reconnect with his now adult daughter, who hates him because he's been framed for the rape and murder of his ex-wife (the girl's mother.)
After Brolin hooks up with his old school buddy (Imperioli) and a good Samaritan nurse (Elizabeth Olsen) there are a series of preposterous twists based so deep in unreality that one can only approach 'Oldboy' as some sort of fable.
Indeed, there are some intentionally surreal aspects to the film. It takes place in a blank geography - “the Freedom State” according to license plates. A number of scenes feel strangely flat and vacuous, like a moment when an older woman says, “Come in dear, I was just about to make some tea” and Brolin crawls around looking for clues. It felt like a bad episode of 'Murder, She Wrote' at this point. Yet, other scenes have over-the-top insanity cranked up to the max. Big baddie Sharlto Copely's headquarters, replete with high-tech surveillance and dragonlady henchman, looks like something out of 'Kick-Ass.'
There are plenty of howlers in this one. Imperioli's strangulation ranks with Nic Cage shouting “Not the Bees!” in 'The Wicker Man,' and Samuel L. Jackson undercuts any real drama shouting in his “Aww hell, naw!” voice as he's being tortured. (Also, his hair makes him look like a 'Hunger Games' reject.)
Miles from this is Brolin at center stage, treating the material with complete seriousness. It's like he's in an entirely different movie – a real movie – but the setting around him is cheap, rushed and unfocused. Spike Lee's last movie 'Red Hook Summer' was also a mess with regard to tone and performance, but at least that movie had heart, enough that I could still recommend seeing it despite its flaws. It's darn near impossible to connect with any of the characters in 'Oldboy.' The best you can do is kinda admire the picture for having the bravery to be so strange.
But it's not that strange. The octopus and the tongue scenes are out, for those that know the original. (And for those asking, they did change the big final twist at the end a little, but it is basically the same.) The famous hallway hammer fight is in, but it lacks the oomph of the original. Indeed, you may be tempted to laugh when the canned electric guitars kick in and the villains jump into the frame. Spike's recent documentary 'Bad 25' may have still been on his mind; they look like Broadway dancers about to throwdown with Michael Jackson in the subway.
'Oldboy' is absolutely one to miss. If you are looking for hyperviolent and ridiculous tales of criminal behavior, there are any number of comics on the Vertigo imprint that will serve you far better. Reading comics is much cooler than watching ill-advised remakes.
'Oldboy' opens in theaters on November 27.
Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen on Film.com, Badass Digest and StarTrek.com.