Spike Lee made his name as a filmmaker with edgy, low-budget portrayals of the urban experience — films like “Do the Right Thing” and “Mo Better Blues,” which chronicled life in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. But he’s also dabbled in more commercial fare, as with his enjoyable and slickly crafted 2006 heist film, “Inside Man.”
Like “Inside Man,” his latest, “Oldboy,” is a genre film — a twisted revenge picture rather than a heist flick. But “Oldboy” lacks the confidence and craftsmanship that made “Inside Man” so appealing. And it is gruesome, graphic and unrelenting in ways that will likely limit its broader commercial appeal.
To a great extent, that’s inherent in the source material. Mr. Lee’s film is adapted from a 2003 Korean film of the same name. The original, a stylish and shocking riff on revenge cinema, was flashy, thrilling and memorably disturbing. It became an instant cult classic and helped launch the international career of director Chan-wook Park.
Mr. Lee’s remake makes few significant revisions while following the same basic outline as its predecessor. But it lacks the directorial pizzazz or the gut-wrenching kick of the original. Instead, it is simply gory and disturbing, a glum exercise in sicko-fatalism rather than an elegant venture into operatic pulp.
As in the Korean original, the American remake follows a selfish drunk who, after a night of alcohol binging, finds himself locked in a mysterious, motel-like prison. Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) has no idea where he is, why he’s been confined, or who is responsible. He has no contact with the outside world except meals delivered through a tiny service hole in the locked door. And he has no idea how long he’ll be forced to stay.
Twenty years later, he finds out the length of his term when he awakes one morning in a park — finally free to go about his life. But normal life isn’t an option. In the preceding years, he’s become obsessed with finding his mysterious tormentor, giving up drink and honing his strength while in confinement. And so his quest for revenge begins.
What a bloody quest it is. Like the violence in the original, Mr. Lee’s numerous scenes of torture and mayhem are over-the-top. But in the original, it felt purposeful: The movie was pushing the audience’s limits just as the protagonist was pushing his own. This time around, the violence comes across as more banal than boundary-pushing. It’s exceedingly gruesome and yet somehow perfunctory, as if the movie were merely checking off boxes on a standardized creative-violence checklist.
It doesn’t help that Mr. Brolin, typically a forceful and brooding presence, seems so uninterested in his revenge quest. His lack of passion similarly undermines the relationship he has with Marie (Elizabeth Olsen), a young nurse who helps him along his way. A few scenes with Samuel L. Jackson and Sharlto Copley, two of Joe’s tormentors, manage to generate a little more heat, as well as a lot more blood. But even these scenes feel as if they are intended to hit some predetermined quota of violent outrages and yuck-inducing psychosexual offenses.
How much of this is Mr. Lee’s fault is hard to say. His original cut reportedly ran almost three hours; the final release is just 104 minutes. Maybe it would have worked better if there had been more. But what’s left is just too much.
CREDITS: Directed by Spike Lee, screenplay by Mark Protosevich
RATING: R for sex, nudity, graphic violence
RUNNING TIME: 104 minutes