Movie Review: “Oldboy”

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The problem with remakes is that you can’t “un-see” the original film. And that’s especially true of Chan-Wook Park’s searing 2003 hit, “Oldboy.”
The new Spike Lee/Hollywood version deviates in a lot of minor and a few important ways. But try as you might, a viewer who cannot shake memories of the righteous and horrific violence and the shattering twists of the original.
It’s still the story of a man drugged, kidnapped and locked up, with no human contact, for 20 years. He still gets out, furious and foaming at the mouth for revenge.
But this new “Oldboy” has a much longer prologue, suggesting  that Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) is enough of a drunken lout to actually deserve his life-altering fate. And there’s a Hollywood style spoon-fed epilogue that goes beyond merely “explaining” the reasons for what came before.
It doesn’t so much ruin the movie and misunderstand certain fundamentals about why the first version worked.
Joe drinks on the job and then, in an insane touch, comes-on to a big client’s wife. Then he wakes up in a room with no phone, a rotating painting of an outdoor scene rather than a window, and a TV which shows him the decades passing him by in his solitary confinement — the Clinton years, the Bush era, Obama’s election and second inauguration.
He has been framed for the murder of his hated ex-wife. He tries to atone for this in scores of unsent letters to his daughter Mia.
“I deserve your hate,” he scribbles.
And in between meals (always Chinese dumplings), gassings and shaves, he goes mad.
Then, just as he’s about to make a break for it, he’s released. That’s when the revenge starts.
Lee, working from a Mark Protosevich script, gleefully dives into the violence and depravity here. He’s been waiting decades to torture Samuel L. Jackson (a mysterious mohawked figure). And he re-stages the epic hammer brawl from the first “Oldboy” with brio and brute force.
Elizabeth Olsen plays the kindly nurse who tends to Joe’s wounds after each knife fight and teaches him how to use this newfangled iPhone’s applications to help him work through his list of suspects — the who and maybe the why of his confinement.
It’s film that embraces ugliness — vomit and blood and bodily functions — “Oldboy” does a better job of showing the victim track down his tormenter, but a much worse job at teasing out suspense and intrigue as he does.
Olsen’s beguilingly sexy empathy plays well, and Brolin wholly commits to the part even if he’s never been made to look more slovenly and homely on the screen. Lee peppers the supporting cast with black characters actors and has his cinematographer toss in a few of Lee’s trademark camera tricks.
It was a dubious enterprise all along, remaking a fairly infamous movie that depends a lot of its surprises. If anything, the new version is even more twisted, with Sharlto Copley, Pom Klementieff, Michael Imperioli and Max Casella filling in around the edges.
But Lee, in a sort of humorless send-up of Tarantino, substitutes kinky for mystery, explicit sex and violence for sex and violence with real shock value. When it comes to this remake, you plainly can’t teach an oldboy like Lee new tricks.
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MPAA Rating: R for strong brutal violence, disturbing images, some graphic sexuality and nudity, and language  .
Cast: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, Samuel L. Jackson, Sharlto Copley
Credits: Directed by Spike Lee, written by Mark Protosevich, based on the Korean film and manga comic. A FilmDistrict release. 
Running time: 1:34

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