The 2003 horror mystery Oldboy by South Korean filmmaker Chan-wook Park is a cult classic, a triumph of a disturbing revenge story and a genuinely jarring plot twist.
By JON NICCUM
Special to The Star
Spike Lees American remake, though capably assembled, gets lost in an awkward translation.
Josh Brolin stars as Joe Doucett, an alcoholic ad executive who would rather spend an evening reeling in a big client than attend his 3-year-old daughters birthday party. Following a disastrous meeting, Joe retreats into a bottle and the arms of an enigmatic woman (Pom Klementieff). He awakens in what appears to be a hotel room without doors or windows, only a slit from which he is served trays of dumplings and vodka.
Years go by with no explanation of why he is imprisoned or who put him there. The isolation forces him to change his behavior. He gives up drinking. He passes the time writing apologetic letters to his daughter, stockpiling them in hopes of seeing her again. He hones his body by watching TV fitness programs and mimicking moves from kung fu flicks.
Two decades pass before he is released again with no explanation. He launches an obsessive quest for answers and retaliation, aided only by a former high school buddy (Michael Imperioli) and a young nurse (Elizabeth Olsen) who treats his wounds during his manhunt.
Joes lone clue is a phone voice (Sharlto Copley) that explains, (We) have to accept the consequences of every deed, word and thought in the course of our lifetime.
Iconic director Lee might seem a funky choice to tackle this material. It doesnt touch on the social themes or genres that have characterized his career. His ability to maintain the underlying puzzle (as he did with Inside Man) outclasses scenes taken individually.
Consider the films signature action piece. The original features a skirmish between the hammer-wielding hero (Min-sik Choi) and numerous guards, staged as a four-minute horizontal tracking shot. Its astonishing. Lee and company spent five weeks prepping and shooting their version of this fight, adding vertical levels and far more muscled goons.
Lees best ally is Brolin, who leans on his chiseled ferocity to keep matters compelling. No matter how outlandish the plot becomes, his characters single-minded determination grounds the story.
Alternately, Copley gives the years worst performance. The South African actor (who already was pretty dreadful as the mercenary in Elysium) portrays The Stranger with the kind of showy effete glee usually reserved for mustachioed villains who tie women to train tracks in silent movies. Copleys acting constantly reminds the viewer that none of this is real.
Oldboy also serves as a bleak reminder: Americanized remakes of beloved foreign films usually result in disappointment. One would have to be stuck in solitary confinement for 20 years to not realize this by now.
Rated R for strong brutal violence, disturbing images, some graphic sexuality and nudity, and language.