Josh Brolin as Joe Doucett
Elizabeth Olsen as Marie Sebastian
Sharlto Copley as Adrian / The Stranger
Samuel L. Jackson as Chaney
Michael Imperioli as Chucky
Pom Klementieff as Haeng-Bok
James Ransone as Dr. Tom Melby
Max Casella as James Prestley
Linda Emond as Edwina Burke
Elvis Nolasco as Cortez
Rami Malek as Browning
Lance Reddick as Daniel Newcombe
Hannah Ware as Donna Hawthorne
Richard Portnow as Bernie Sharkey
Hannah Simone as Stephanie Lee
Ciera Payton as Capri
Cinqué Lee as Bellhop
Steven Hauck as Arthur Pryce
Caitlin Dulany as Emma Pryce
Lizzy DeClement as Amanda Pryce
Directed by Spike Lee
After a night of drinking, Joseph Doucett (Josh Brolin) finds himself trapped in a door and window-less "hotel room," given an endless supply of vodka and Chinese food as he's framed for the rape and murder of his ex-wife, leaving his three-year-old daughter on her own. Doucett is imprisoned for 20 years and just as he is about to escape, he's released with only one goal: to find his daughter and get his violent revenge on whomever put him in that jail.
Sometimes, it's far too easy to pick on a movie just because it's a remake, especially if it's a remake of a beloved genre classic like Park Chan-wook's "Oldboy," which paved the way for a large influx of Korean cinema to this country, thanks in part to the support of Quentin Tarantino. This is not even close to the first Korean film to be adapted for American audiences, but it's taken a long time for someone to figure out how to translate Park's crazy vision into an American setting to just dismiss this remake outright.
Sure, I get the arguments that fans of the original will know exactly what's going to happen and that there's little new or original, but in the case of the better remakes—Scorsese's "Cape Fear," Cronenberg's "The Fly"-- it's really the execution of the material by a new director that makes or breaks it. In this case, it's all about translating what is thought of as a film that thrives on its Korean setting and transporting it into a more familiar environment, and while director Spike Lee puts his imprint on it, he's clearly a director for hire here rather than this being the typical Spike Lee "joint."
Granted, enough time has passed since I've seen Park's movie to the point where I couldn't tell you exactly all the points where the movie diverts, but a lot of why this remake works comes down to Mark Protosevich's script, which finds new ways of getting into the story without completely replicating it. Part of this is apparent from the opening sequence that introduces Josh Brolin's Joseph Doucett as a sleazy ad man constantly neglecting his family to get drunk and hit on client's wives. When he ends up imprisoned, even he thinks that anyone in his life could be responsible for taking him out of the picture.
It's a great role for Brolin, who not only does a good job pulling off the range of emotions that Doucett experiences over the course of the film, but he also has the physicality to make the violent action scenes believable. The best part of the movie is watching him in isolation as time passes, something we're informed of through TV broadcasts of presidential inaugurations and such. Brolin doesn't really look that different from when he's imprisoned until when he's released, but that's only bothersome when he revisits his bartender friend Chucky (Michael Imperioli) after twenty years and the latter doesn't recognize him.
It doesn't take long before we meet Sharlto Copley's mysterious stranger who had Joseph imprisoned, giving the type of "love it or hate it" delivery that will likely divide audiences, talking with an odd effeminate faux-Brit accent, which actually makes the character even creepier as he plays games with our unlikely hero. Samuel L. Jackson, used to playing the main bad guy in so many movies, makes a couple of short but effective appearances as the warden of the jail where Joseph is kept, giving the type of expletive-filled performance that will appease fans of his work with Tarantino.
Although there are a number of great action sequences, "Oldboy" isn't entirely an action movie, because much of it involves building relationships between characters and creating mystery behind Joseph's situation. A lot of that comes down to Elizabeth Olsen's performance as a nurse who takes Joseph under her wing, but her scenes with Brolin are the moments that drag, which often takes you out of what should be an adrenaline-fueled thriller.
Wisely, Spike Lee doesn't try to recreate too many scenes verbatim or make a shot-for-shot copy of the original, which would have made it worse. Instead, he finds ways to pay homage to the original movie without directly ripping it off, although like the original, his version is also not for the weak of heart or stomach. The one time Lee takes inspiration from the original is for the iconic corridor hammer fight reenvisioned as a sped-up one-man battle against nameless goons who look like extras from Michael Jackson's "Bad" video. The camera work by Sean Bobbitt, who also shot Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave," improves over the course of the movie after early worries the entire film might be shot with handheld cameras.
If you've seen the original movie, you already know the big twist and where the movie's going to end up and having that knowledge certainly will lessen any sense of suspense. Because of this, the final confrontation between Joe and "The Stranger" isn't nearly as effective nor is the ending as powerful as the original.
The Bottom Line:
A few minor changes and another strong, rounded performance by Josh Brolin helps Spike Lee's remake overcome some of the problems inherent in revisiting known (and generally loved) source material. It's not nearly as groundbreaking as the original, but it's as watchable and entertaining as one might hope.
(Incidentally, you can read my review of the original Oldboy here