‘Oldboy’ movie review: Spike Lee’s remake of a 2003 Korean cult film makes some fixes

November 26, 2013

There’s a nice Hitchcockian quality to the new “Oldboy,” Spike Lee’s remake of Korean director Park Chan-wook’s cult film of revenge and regret. Which is kind of weird, considering that the source material is not Hitchcockian in the least.

It’s a strange, yet not entirely unsatisfying, fit. In trying to adapt the source material — not just the 2003 film, but the late 1990s Japanese manga series on which it was based — Lee and writer Mark Protosevich (“The Cell”) have jettisoned some details while significantly reshaping others, all the while keeping the essential outlines of the baroque and quite frankly bizarre tale of punishment and redemption intact.

“Oldboy” is grand opera shoved into the shoebox of a murder mystery.

As in the original, Lee’s “Oldboy” revolves around a man (Josh Brolin, here given the Everyman moniker of Joe) who wakes up after a bender to find that he’s been imprisoned in what seems to be a seedy, windowless hotel room where he’s fed, through a hole in the locked door, the same carryout Chinese dumplings every day for the next 20 years. (In the manga, it was 10 years; in the first film, 15. I guess that’s inflation for you.)

Finally, after marinating in enough resentment to pickle his heart, Joe is released, with one thing on his mind: vengeance against whoever imprisoned him. First, Joe must find that person.

This isn’t actually that hard. For one thing, Joe remembers the taste of the dumplings so vividly that he is able to identify the restaurant, following a delivery man back to the site of his incarceration, where he tortures a henchman (the great Samuel L. Jackson) until he gets some answers. For another thing, the guy who locked Joe up actually wants to be found, despite surrounding himself with layers of ruthless bodyguards, a couple dozen of whom Joe plows through, armed only with a claw hammer.

Fans of the 2003 film will be glad to see that Lee has kept this famous scene from the original. Park’s amazingly choreographed fight — an extended set piece in the original — was shot like moving frames of a comic book, by a camera that tracked back and forth along a static hallway. Here, Lee’s style is less formal, and characterized by more fluid, naturalistic camera movement. It’s an impressive battle nonetheless.

For Joe, the real trick isn’t hunting down his adversary, however, but figuring out why he was imprisoned. Accomplished with the assistance of a young woman (Elizabeth Olsen) he meets on the street, this quest is the meat of both movies. The back story that eventually reveals itself in the new film is considerably changed from the original, which may upset some purists.

I’d argue that the alterations are an improvement. There was a psychologically false tone to Park’s film that never really made sense to me, and which Lee and Protosevich seem to have tried to fix. The ugly secrets that eventually come out — and that implicate both Joe and his tormentor — are still crazy, almost preposterous, in their extremity. But there’s a sharpness and a clarity to the characters’ motivations that help to ground the ridiculous proceedings in a kind of heightened reality.

In general, Lee directs with less visual verve than Park. Anchored by Brolin, who brings an almost simian physicality to his portrayal, this “Oldboy” feels simultaneously less showy, less nightmarish and less epic than the original. Nevertheless, with its moral about the ubiquity of man’s corruption — where those who hand out punishment are as guilty as those who receive it — “Oldboy” redux is just as depraved and depressing as the original.

Is it better, worse or just different? Lee’s “Oldboy” feels a little less like a tale that’s been torn out of a comic book and more like one that’s been ripped from the pages of a newspaper.

★★½

R. At area theaters. Contains strong brutal violence, disturbing images, some graphic sexuality and nudity, and strong language.
104 minutes.

Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Michael O’Sullivan has worked since 1993 at The Washington Post, where he covers art, film and other forms of popular — and unpopular — culture.
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