Spike Lee has made an entertaining, stylish, gory, disturbing revenge-thriller. And that's fine. That is the serviceable, competent minimum we should be able to expect from an English language remake of Park Chan-wook's staggeringly strange 2003 film Oldboy. But is that enough?
If you can read and don't mind doing so in a movie theater, if you're not irrationally fearful of subtitles, then Lee's Americanized version is reduced to irrelevance, but that doesn't make it a bad idea. It's still an object to inspect, a checklist of weird plot events to tick off, a familiar story told by a different voice. What did Lee keep or discard? Does Josh Brolin eat a live squid on camera like the original's Choi Min-sik? Is the second half's descent into cultural taboo and tragedy intact? You won't know unless you go, insuring it will have at least a curious cult audience. You know who you are.
Brolin plays Joe Doucett, a dissolute advertising executive sequestered against his will in a locked room for twenty years. He doesn't know his captors, he doesn't know why he's been imprisoned and he doesn't know when it will end. He learns through a TV in his room that his wife is dead, that he's been framed for her murder and that their toddler-aged daughter has been adopted. Then, two decades later, as inexplicably as he was taken, he is set free, sprung from a vintage Louis Vuitton trunk in the middle of a grassy field. Hardened, stronger, ready to find answers and make the guilty pay, he sets out on a mission of deranged vengeance, one where no act of violence is too extreme if it gets results. Skulls are crushed, throats are hacked with blades, worse stuff. Squeamish? Disney's delightful princess musical Frozen is playing next door in the same multiplex.
Some details are changed yet, beat for beat, Lee's outing retains the entire plot of Park's original. But in the end Park's remains superior, the freaked-out gold standard of shocking revenge nightmares. Its gruesome qualities are now legendary, its blackened, doomed comic nature the sort that makes words like "bleak" feel inadequate, and its emotional histrionics are something seen, these days at least, mostly in opera, where that sort of thing still fits well because people are sing-shouting at you as they go mad and commit suicide.
But more than that, Park's creation transcends the thriller/revenge genre to become a story of ruined souls and intense human agony. It's about punishments inflicted on the self and others, it's a high-toned genre film that feels like it got sidetracked and lost in a grindhouse on its way to the Frieze Art Fair. It's a masterpiece of contemporary perversity and it's informed by South Korean culture in ways that -- and here's the pothole in the road for Lee's version -- are both difficult for Western audiences to understand and probably impossible to translate. Its mysterious, ambiguous qualities remain, even when you know how it ends.
Which means Lee had an imposing, almost impossible, act to follow. His film, with its trademark visual Spike Lee-isms and old-school New York grittiness to spare, is a cover version. A good-looking, never-boring, compelling cover version, but still a cover. It's not mysterious, it's blunt. It's not morally hazy, it's penitent. It's not weird, it's brutal. It's Oldboy, but different. And that'll be enough for some. Unless it's not.