There was really no good reason to remake Oldboy, Park Chan-wook’s cartoonishly extreme, intermittently fantastic 2004 revenge thriller. Here, nevertheless, is the inevitable American do-over, designed to squeeze a few pennies out of subtitle-averse moviegoers. The film is needless, but is it useless? Fans of the South Korean version will experience serious déjà vu watching Josh Brolin, the rugged-cowboy star of No Country For Old Men, bash his way through a hallway of thugs with a hammer. Yet those unfamiliar with the original, from which that astounding set piece was pulled, will simply gape in awe. Therein lies the challenge of evaluating remakes, especially ones as slavishly imitative as this: If audiences haven’t seen it, it’s new to them. So why rain on the parade?
That’s not to say that this second Oldboy is some kind of shot-for-shot facsimile of the first one. It deviates here and there, though rarely in ways that’ll make the initiated feel as though they’re seeing something fresh. After a slightly protracted prologue, the plot settles into a familiar groove: Drunken advertising executive Joe (Brolin) wakes up in a barricaded hotel room, where he’ll spend the next 20 years of his life choking down dumplings, relentlessly working out, and swearing revenge against his unseen kidnappers. Why, and by whom, Joe’s been imprisoned is the central mystery of Oldboy, which turns into a kind of Death Wish detective story once the anti-hero is released into blinding daylight and begins hunting down the culprits. Helping him in his mission is Marie (Elizabeth Olsen), a young woman whose real identity will be a surprise to those who haven’t seen the other film.
For a while, there was talk of Steven Spielberg directing an Oldboy remake, with Will Smith in the lead. That might have been a jarring mismatch of talent to material, but perhaps an interesting one. Instead, the film has fallen into the hands of Spike Lee, who preserves the nastiness, and the twisty plotting, of the original. Lee can be as stylish a filmmaker as Park, but he’s mainly in work-for-hire mode here; only the familiar sight of a close-up dolly shot makes this feel like one of his vintage joints. (Even Inside Man, his previous Hollywood thriller, had those quintessentially Spike interview scenes.) Park’s film was wildly irreverent, grinning manically in the face of torture, suicide, incest, and other taboos. For better and worse, Lee’s Oldboy is a more somber affair. The director stretches out the first act, strengthening the drama by lingering longer in that hotel room with Joe. (Briefly, and rather poignantly, he befriends a family of mice.) That said, maybe straight-faced isn’t the right approach for such an over-the-top narrative, pulled from a Japanese manga and built around one of the most elaborate revenge schemes in recent movie history. Park knew he was making pulp, and directed accordingly.
If Spike has an ace in the hole, it’s his dependable star: As Brolin plays him, Joe is both a force of fearsome, volcanic rage, and—in his discovery of smart phones, search engines, and everything else he missed over the prior two decades—a faintly amusing fish out of water. Lending real gravity to his character’s single-minded crusade, he’s the best reason to give the film a chance. But will this Oldboy, bound for malls and multiplexes, take Joe all the way, to the dark, sick, and ludicrous places its predecessor went? Finding that out may be the big draw for skeptics, who will otherwise be forced to kill running time cataloging minor alterations, like the way Joe slices at the neck flesh of a rival (Samuel L. Jackson, reuniting with Lee for the first time since Jungle Fever) instead of plucking out his teeth. As for newcomers to this tale of ancient grudges and desperate degenerates, they’ll likely have a fine time—though perhaps they’d be best off just renting Park’s version instead. Nothing’s better for knocking down language barriers than a well-swung hammer.