For those familiar with Chan-wook Park's mesmerising 2003 original, Spike Lee's remake of Oldboy is tantamount to cultural vandalism. For the uninitiated, it's an aesthetically and narratively unengaging dud that squanders an impressive cast.
Josh Brolin tackles the central role of Joe Doucett, an alcoholic imprisoned by an unknown captor and forced to watch news footage of his wife's murder - for which he's been framed. He tries to preserve his sanity by copying martial arts moves he sees on television and writing letters to his daughter, who was 3 when he last saw her. After 20 years, he is released. He wants vengeance. With a new friend in tow, paramedic Marie (Elizabeth Olsen), he embarks on a quest to find the truth and his daughter. It's a painful journey, mainly for any viewers.
The essence of the storyline remains the same as its Korean predecessor, but gone are the key elements that made the original pack such a powerful visceral and psychological blow to audiences. In its place lies a pathetically neutered shell deserving of scorn. We shall oblige, primarily as an act of catharsis.
Oldboy is now bereft of stylistic flourishes and macabre terror. No live octopus eating, no tooth extractions, no sadistic hypnosis, no tongue-related self-mutilation and no interesting shot compositions or framing. Spike Lee has largely adopted a bog-standard point and shoot approach in its place.
The core characters have been unforgivably altered, diluted and/or tamed. Unlike Min-sik Choi's Dae-Su, whose wild actions upon release from incarceration highlight his sexually frenzied and warped state, Brolin's Joe Doucett emerges as a grunting, scowling anti-hero hellbent on revenge. Nothing more. It's a huge shame, as the actor had the right attributes and calibre to excel if the script didn't render his character a generic mess.
The central romance involving Olsen's Marie and Joe has now been reduced to a jarring plot mechanism, when it should have been a torrid and twisted union of two unhinged souls. There's also a lack of a connection between the viewer and the story, as Chan-wook Park managed to actively immerse you in the mystery, only to be stunned into submission by a shocking payoff.
The big twist at the end of the movie remains the same in aim, but certainly not execution as the related backstory and motivations have been turned into something beyond the realms of stupidity. As the perverse antagonist Adrian, Sharlto Copley appears to have based his performance on food critic Gil Chesterton from the classic sitcom Frasier. His mannered portrayal would be deemed too camp for a pantomime, while the reasoning behind his callousness is laughable.
On a more positive note, two minor and relatively superfluous additions - involving a Thighmaster commercial and a family of mice in the prison - both work well. Together, they salvaged about one minute's worth of footage. Thanks. The fundamental question still remains though.
Why strip out so much of what was great about the original Oldboy, leaving a pathetically neutered shell in its place? Change for the sake of change is just as self-defeating as any change based on a desire to create something less 'challenging' and more palatable for mainstream crowds in order to reap box office rewards. The fact that the title remains unchanged is an act of desecration, tarnishing a vastly superior work by association.