When the Korean revenge movie Oldboy was released in 2003, it became a buzzed-about cult hit largely because of three things: its cringe-inducing violence, its stylized action, and its jaw-dropping climax. Spike Lee’s English remake has no style and it fumbles its ending, leaving a grotesque mess.
Oldboy’s premise is that Joe (Josh Brolin) – a degenerate businessman who hits on his clients’ wives, drinks every chance he gets, and doesn’t visit his 3-year-old daughter – is kidnapped one 1993 night and awakens in what looks at first like a motel room but is actually a personal prison. The room’s window is fake and the only door is bolted shut.
After resignedly giving up hope of escaping, Joe turns to his only window to the outside world, the in-room TV. He discovers on the news that his ex-wife has been murdered, his daughter has been adopted, and he has been named the killer (thanks to planted DNA).
For 20 years, Joe consumes the dumplings and vodka he’s given daily, he writes and stockpiles desperate letters to his daughter, and he watches the world go by through his television. Then one day, without warning, he’s released. With no understanding of what he did to deserve his punishment and 20 years of seething fury, Joe goes on a mission of revenge.
The concept is preposterous and hinges on the ending giving an answer of such scale that it overcomes that. The original, despite its occasional missteps, stuck its landing with a jaw-dropping turn of the plot in its climax; the 2013 version trips and stumbles with it, in part due to Sharlto Copley playing his villainous role as if he has a maniacal moustache to twirl.
Park Chan-Wook’s version had a visual flair that amped up the gore for key moments but shied away from it for others. Lee’s version goes for an all-is-more approach, showing everything from severed tongues to lumps of flesh. Without any style, it starts off nauseating and fast becomes numbing.
As its own movie, the new Oldboy is unlikeable, gruesome and dull. As a remake, it forgets that Joe’s revenge, deep down, is less about exacting vengeance than about trying to understand his imprisonment. By the time Spike Lee’s Oldboy gets to its answers, nobody really cares what the question was.