After seeing the film one has to wonder if “Oldboy” isn’t some elaborate real-world scheme of Lee’s. It occurred to me that the filmmaker, who moonlights as a New York University film professor, might well have gone through the convoluted machinations of bringing the movie to the big screen to teach his students how not to make a remake of a well liked film.
Sure, he calls the exercise a “re-interpretation,” not a remake, in the same way that Miles Davis’s version of “My Funny Valentine” is a transformation of the tune and not a cover version, but instead of elevating “Oldboy” onto a different plane, he hits all the wrong notes.
Josh Brolin is Joe Doucett, an advertising executive with an ex-wife, a three yar old daughter and a crippling addiction to booze. He’s the kind of guy who shows upon your doorstep at 3 am yelling, “No one wants to have fun anymore,” when you don’t let him in.
One night, after a bender he wakes up in a cell—actually more like a bare bones Motel Six with no windows but with a television and a mail slot for room service. From the TV he learns that he is accused of the brutal murder of his ex-wife, but is given no clue as to why he has been locked away.
For twenty years he rots in the room, so starved for human contact he fashions a friend à la Wilson in “Castaway” out of a pillowcase.
He emerges from his two decade sentence cleaned up, looking like a movie star, although a somewhat slightly dazed one, in a box in the middle of a field.
A mysterious stranger (Sharlto Copley) contacts him with a deal. Answer two questions and the entire experience will be explained and he will get to see his daughter. Fail and the mysterious goings on will continue.
Along the way the moonfaced Marie Sebastian (Elizabeth Olsen) and bar owner Chucky (Michael Imperioli) try and help Joe get to the bottom of the mystery.
If anyone should have been able to pull this off it should be Josh Brolin. There is no more manly-man actor in the mold of Lee Marvin or Lee Van Cleef working today. You believe him as a slickster with a drink in his hand and a practically indestructible force of nature able to withstand physical punishment that would make Grigori Rasputin look like a wimp.
But yet, in “Oldboy,” you don’t care.
The original movie was an epic tragedy, a twisted story (there will be no spoilers here) driven by revenge and dark secrets. All those elements are in place in Lee’s version, but the focus has shifted to the mystery, which is the least interesting thing about the story.
As a collection of red herrings and mumbo jumbo about “faceless corporations” it’s an incoherent mess of information searching for a form. As a story device it deflects the focus from the mental to the procedural, giving Brolin little to do except glower into the camera.
Add to that a badly botched remounting of the original’s most striking scene—a hammer battle in a long hallway—and you’re left wondering what Miles Davis might have done with this instead of Spike Lee.