Film review: Spike Lee’s ‘Oldboy’ remake is less mysterious, but just as brutal

Jeffrey M. Anderson

Three stars

Oldboy Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, Sharlto Copley, Samuel L. Jackson. Directed by Spike Lee. Rated R. Now playing.

Believe the hype. Spike Lee has directed a remake. His choice? Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy (2003), an enormously popular film among a small sector of cult movie fans. The main problem with remaking Oldboy is that it comes with a wallop of an ending, which Lee and screenwriter Mark Protosevich don’t mess with much. There’s no real way to tell the story without it. Thus, anyone already familiar with the original—or with the 1996 Japanese manga—won’t find a lot to be surprised about. Additionally, the filmmakers prop up the story a little around the edges. Certain elements that were left purposely opaque in the previous film are now more thoroughly explained.

The good news is that, in the lead role, Josh Brolin gives a terrifically unhinged performance, almost worthy of predecessor Choi Min-sik. Lee’s film spends more time setting up the character, here called Joe Doucett, establishing him as a bad father and a chronic alcoholic, thick and rude. After a bad business deal and a night of drinking, he’s mysteriously abducted and locked in a room. Twenty years later, he’s released and left to figure out what happened and why. He’s now sober and mean and can take down an entire football team with a few well-placed punches.

Elizabeth Olsen co-stars as a helpful nurse, Sharlto Copley overacts as the main antagonist, and Samuel L. Jackson—in his first collaboration with Lee since his memorable turn as Gator in Jungle Fever—plays a sinister figure with a colorful haircut.

Lee’s direction is hard and brutal, and while his more literal version loses some of the story’s mystique by opening it up to unwanted questions, it doesn’t lighten up on some of the grislier elements. He pays tribute to some of the flourishes of the original film, such as a long fight scene captured in one tracking shot, and expands on them. Also, a squid makes a small cameo.

Oldboy marks the first time Lee has applied his vicious talents to exploitation, making something purely for visceral entertainment, and he’s pretty adept at it. He’s always been good at button-pushing, and now he proves he’s good at gut-punching, as well.

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