The 2003 film Oldboy by South Korean auteur Park Chan-wook is that filmmaker’s middle work in a breathtaking cinematic triptych bookended by 2002’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and 2005’s Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. (If you haven’t seen the original, my advice would be to rent the Blu-ray, sit back, and then scrub what remains of your brain off of the wall behind you the next morning.) A masterpiece in every sense of the word, Park’s disconcertingly majestic riff on the sins people commit (which, in the fullness of time, return to commit the sinner), is depraved, transgressive, gorgeous, and gruesome in equal measures. Its storyline has been described more than once by novice Western viewers and critics alike as impenetrable, but reduced to its bare-bones-and-claw-hammers essence, Park’s film is archetypal in terms of the hero’s relentless search for the ever-elusive truth. (In too many ways to count here, it’s also one of the best non-Western Westerns ever made. The Searchers’ John Ford – not to mention Sam Fuller – would’ve loved Park’s film.)
Lee, like Park, practically defines the slippery term auteur, and his “reimagining” of the original retains much of that film’s shuddery, visceral punch. This is very much a Spike Lee Joint, though: Note the double-dolly shots, the riotously pumped-up color palette, and the presence of Samuel L. Jackson for proof of that. Screenwriter Mark Protosevitch jettisons several key sequences that, frankly, hammered home Park’s surreal sense of topsy-turvy unreality, which is a loss keenly felt by die-hard fans of Oldboy 2003. (Sadly, no writhing iidako à la carte here.)
Still, Brolin, as Joe Doucett – an alcoholic, thuggish businessman with anger issues galore and a death note on his oblivious head – gives it his all, scowling, shrieking, and full-on freaking out after his daughter is kidnapped and he himself is “vanished” for two decades. He awakens in a box, shaved, impeccably tailored, and utterly at a loss. (The film’s opening is set in 1993, well before our man Joe could’ve even fathomed the iPhone, iMac, or, truthfully, anything other than “I.”)
Is Lee’s film worth your time? That depends on how much, or how little, you’ve savored Park’s original. Lee does right by the story, or as right as the MPAA allowed him, but like so many Americanized versions of Asian groundbreakers, I ultimately found myself asking “Why?” From Lee’s point of view, I can understand the enticing challenge of taking on a revered cult film Oldboy. But a pair of ill-conceived casting choices can jolt you out of the film, or worse, elicit the rolling of eyes and barely stifled giggle. Specifically, Samuel L. Jackson’s ostentatious thug, Chaney, and Sharlto Copley’s flamboyantly Moriarty-esque über-antagonist slow the film’s forward momentum while you goggle at their histrionics and too-cool couture. That’s just distracting in a movie whose inspirational source, while rarely subtle, achieved a sublime blending of ultraviolence and extreme art.