Rusty and lost in translation. Oldboy had me in fear that it would dispose of all the perversity and extreme taboo material from the South Korean original, that shocking, transgressive and uniquely transcendent thriller from 2005. Surprisingly, all the perversity is kept intact by director Spike Lee and writer Mark Protosevich which I should be relieved by. Yet it doesn’t work, and I admit I’m a tad befuddled to the reason of why the remake didn’t work for me. In an attempt to grasp for a reason, I think the remake is too muted in tone and execution. The original had a fierce power to it, partly because it was operatic and stylistically deranged. The remake feels too studied, too self-conscious, abandoning raw unbridled emotion for a think-piece approach.
The prologue is different from the original in a way that had me appreciating Lee’s take. We meet Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin, in hot-blooded mode) at work as an advertising exec who handshakes on a business deal and then blows it with his subsequent lewd behavior. He continues on through the night callously, we take note he’s a lewd boozer obsequiously. Abruptly, he wakes up in a dingy motel room accessorized with bare essentials. A bed, a night table, a dresser, a TV, a gnarly painting of a patronizing black figure staring back at him. He learns he is in a specialized prison, and that his room will be his chamber for the next twenty years (silent guards push food through a door slot). Imagine having no social contact with anything for twenty years, and having only yourself and the TV. You go stir crazy.
Released without explanation and supplied with a wad of cash, Joe staggers out of a foot locker from a barren field into the open air. He is also equipped with a cell phone, and goaded with a message to find the man who placed him in captivity for twenty years. While the protagonist doesn’t eat a live octopus like the original, he does – like the original Oldboy -eat a ton of Chinese dumplings so he can trace down the food supplier, and alas, his former captors. Of course, the accompanying issue of finding who did this to him is why this was done to him all these years. Joe was also framed with his wife’s murder.
Faithfully, “Oldboy” retreads the original and even hassles itself to provide extra tidy information. Joe is supplied a girl (Elizabeth Olsen) to help him on his search. He goes on a rampage against prison keeper Chaney (Samuel L. Jackson), resulting in an overlong throat-slicing torture scene and a hammer fight against the rest of Chaney’s motley crew of goons. He also revisits his old school where he committed an insensitive social faux pas many years ago. All of this is hyper-real and cinematically exhilarating in the original, but sort of stultifying here.
I don’t know how people unfamiliar to the cult Korean film are going to respond to the taboo-shattering twists of this American film, but somehow it doesn’t cut skin deep to see it played out here, where it’s just simply unconvincing. Especially unconvincing is Olsen’s character who is too bright to be Joe’s compliant accompaniment. The best actor of the film is Sharlto Copley (last seen in “Elysium”) as the mysterious mastermind behind this wicked charade. His character is something like Vincent Price meets Robert Blake meets Dieter Laser. Men like him either are stuck in insane asylums or they run insane asylums. Copley, as Adrian Pryce, is nuts and yet he’s the one diabolically and persuasively pulling the strings.
Copley is easily the most outrageous element in the film in a film that needs much more outrageousness in pitch and tenor. Even the music by Roque Banos is too subdued and thriller-conventional in sound. What’s missing from the music, and the film too of course, is howls of madness.
104 Minutes. Rated R.
CRIME STORY / BLOODLUST / LATE NIGHT WEIRDNESS