‘Oldboy’ was better in old version | 2 stars

Updated: 2013-11-27T01:29:43Z


Special to The Star

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.

Spike Lee’s 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 daughter’s 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.

Joe’s 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 doesn’t 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 film’s 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. It’s astonishing. Lee and company spent five weeks prepping and shooting their version of this fight, adding vertical levels and far more muscled goons.

It’s ridiculous.

Lee’s best ally is Brolin, who leans on his chiseled ferocity to keep matters compelling. No matter how outlandish the plot becomes, his character’s single-minded determination grounds the story.

Alternately, Copley gives the year’s 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. Copley’s 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.

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