Park Chan-wook's Oldboy was a story of men transformed into beasts, the monomaniacal pursuit of revenge stripping them of their already tenuous humanity. The Korean director gussied up a grim tale of imprisonment, incest, and live-octopus consumption using a squalid exploitation-flick aesthetic that provided his baroque narrative with a visual analogue. Spike Lee's version—which the director has claimed to be a reimagining rather than a remake—is actually a relatively faithful update, one that tones down the formal agitation while dialing up the textual sordidness, tacking on a paltry redemption arc and some whiffs of political commentary. Adding stakes-heightening exposition and fleshing out the character psychology, these attempts to bring the story into clearer focus only end up exaggerating the inherently preposterous properties of this flamboyant yarn.
A hotshot ad exec with serious alcohol and attitude problems, Joe Doucette (Josh Brolin) seems balanced on the edge of a breakdown, a Don Draper-style playboy in a world with decreasing patience for these kinds of frat-boy shenanigans. After ruining an important deal by propositioning the client's wife, he goes off on a spree, one that ends with him imprisoned in what appears to be a tacky hotel room, identical meals of dumplings and vodka slid in under the door. Released in 2013 after 20 years in captivity, the newly focused Joe is granted a 48-hour window to rescue his kidnapped daughter and solve the mystery of why he's been targeted, with the added incentive of having been framed for his wife's murder in the interim. He takes up with Marie (Elizabeth Olsen), a kindly medical volunteer inspired by his miserable circumstances.
It's difficult to see any real precedent for this kind of pulpy material in Lee's previous work, and it's perhaps as a result that the former wunderkind is at his most anonymized and restrained here, plugging along in hired-gun mode. The pacing is well measured, and there's professional skill in every frame, but none of the ebullient verve of something like Red Hook Summer; Brolin floating along atop the dolly for a few short seconds acts as one of the few instances of self-reference, which is odd for a director who usually packs his movies with as many signature touches as possible. Working off Mark Protosevich's script, Lee does push up one interesting angle, flirting with a post-9/11 parable in the style of Spielberg's Munich, but the metaphorical implications of a man whipped into a frenzy by his thirst for revenge are undercut by the restorative properties of a too-neat conclusion.
All these issues seem to stem from a certain measure of uncertainty regarding how to modify the original, a movie whose cult status and ingrained flaws make for a tricky adaptation. Tweaking the approach from one of scummy gothic noir to the world's most twisted superhero origin story may not have been the best way to begin however. Where Park's film imagined the wronged sibling taking revenge on the protagonist as a buttoned-down maniac mogul, the villain here takes the form of an obscenely wealthy, mustache-twirling British blue-blood (played tediously by Sharlto Copley), a choice that, combined with some other absurd touches, pushes the last act into full-tilt farce. In this and other instances, Oldboy seems to be responding to the sillier qualities of its source material by ramping up the ridiculousness, adding heightened violence to spice up the broth.
Some of these variations work. The standout hammer-fight set piece gets a meticulously constructed upgrade, via a three-tiered battle scene that plays out as a mini-masterpiece of action choreography and staging. It's one of the most loosely interpreted items from the original, but even in this virtuoso sequence the film is still beholden to the same basic imagery and occurrences. All the expected events are recycled in some manner, from the mirrored torture scenes to the sight of a man emerging from a suitcase in an open field. But these are enclosed within a work that sands off the rough edges and replaces them with hopelessly silly substitutions, a streamlined plot, and a weird stink of Oriental exoticism. Even the apparent New York setting comes off as totally faceless, the clearest sign of disengagement from a director who normally has a sterling sense of place.
It doesn't help that Lee's version loses the one thing that really worked in the original, the sense of moral complication emerging out of the intertwined action of two men hell-bent on retribution. Oldboy attempts that same gritty complexity, and earns it in some sense, but its attempts at portraying the moral dissolution engendered by vengeance-seeking are sabotaged by a character arc which runs counter to this idea, one that imagines Joe as gradually recovering from his bad-boy past. This doesn't take away from the film's status as a nicely calibrated, handsomely shot piece of genre entertainment, but its attempts to define itself yield mixed results and a general feeling of pointlessness. Park's Oldboy isn't a great movie by any means, but this version is hampered by many of the same issues and more, weighed down both by its copycat status and an inability to pursue its ideas to their logical conclusions.