Consider "Oldboy" Spike Lee's cover version of "If I Had a Hammer." This new American remake of the 2003 Korean revenge drama, also titled "Oldboy," stars Josh Brolin as the victim of a bizarre kidnapping and 20-year imprisonment. Upon his release, as sudden as the instigating events two decades earlier, the protagonist must determine who did this to him, why — and why he's being framed for his wife's murder. The character's ally in amateur detective work is a pliable social worker played by Elizabeth Olsen. By the time everyone on screen realizes what's up, and who's who, the audience may be more in a "Why? Why?" mood.
Park Chan-wook's "Oldboy" from a decade ago was distinguished chiefly by the co-writer/director's rigorous and intensely formal visual style. (Many adore the film; I thought it was elegant but hollow.) With Lee, who's more of a stylistic grazer and change-up artist, the sleek lines of the original have been replaced by a wobbly directorial signature. Many things about the remake hew closely to the 2003 version. Thanks to screenwriter Mark Protosevich other aspects of the story have been revised, leading to a different and more strenuously complex resolution, with an even ickier ick factor.
Park's "Oldboy" was part of a blood-soaked trilogy rounded out by "Sympathy for Lady Vengeance" and "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance." Years ago at the Toronto film festival I asked the director where all the darkly imagined sadism came from. He answered with a movie memory. As a boy, he said, the sight of Gregory Peck's Ahab lashed to the bloody side of the great white whale in "Moby Dick" struck him as "humiliating and painful" and indelible.
What, exactly, drew Lee to an "Oldboy" remake? You can't really tell from watching the film. It's a labyrinthine mystery that doesn't seem to exist on planet Earth; it's hermetic, deliberately artificial, focused on its own fancy misfortunes and old scores, waiting for settlement. Brolin broods and suffers extremely well. As the mysterious string-puller, Sharlto Copley ("District 9") slinks and oozes and oozes and slinks, and continues to deliver a teensy bit too much every second, in action or in repose. The revenge in "Oldboy" is neither sweet nor sour; it's just drab.
MPAA rating: R (for strong brutal violence, disturbing images, some graphic sexuality and nudity, and language)
Running time: 1:43