For those who haven’t seen the original South Korean cult-classic film by Park Chan-wook made 10 years earlier, the second remake, this time by Spike Lee, might seem impressive but not entirely satisfying. A tale of unexplained torture and the revenge that follows, this update lacks intensity with its blunt delivery of violence and brutality.

This Oldboy centers around an alcoholic scoundrel Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) whose life is falling apart. It gets a whole lot worse when the former advertising executive is inexplicably drugged and kidnapped by unknown parties. He regains consciousness in a prison cell that’s disguised as a drab and windowless hotel room, where he’ll be trapped in solitary confinement for the next 20 years.

In the hopeless cell, Joe’s served Chinese take-out dumplings and cheap vodka daily through a slot at the bottom of the door. Through a news report on TV, he learns that he’s been framed for the murder of his ex-wife. Joe’s suicidal despair within the hotel room is slowly replaced by a determination to survive and escape from his tormentors. He stops drinking and gets in shape with the motivation from workout routines and martial arts programs showed on TV, slowly sculpting his body into a lethal weapon for revenge against the people behind his imprisonment. He has no communication with anyone – he doesn’t know where he is, why he’s kidnapped, or how long he’ll be kept prisoner in the room.

Following his release after 2 excruciating decades of torment, Joe starts on a determined quest to find the people to pay back for his long and uncalled for confinement. He visits an old friend Chucky (Michael Imperioli) for help and later befriends Marie Sebastian (Elizabeth Olsen), a young social worker who has triumphed over past addictions and an unhappy childhood. Marie’s immediately drawn to Joe, and helps him in his cause. However, their relationship – “alliance-with-benefits” – seems forced with no development of them working together to solve the mystery.

The second-half of the film sees Joe mercilessly working his way to track down Adrian Pryce (Sharlto Copley), a demented man responsible for Joe’s sufferings who helpfully phones Joe clues – “Who am I and why did I imprison you?” along the way.

Brolin, who was a dead ringer for Tommy Lee Jones’ Agent K in Men in Black 3, puts on an impressive performance of a man falling to pieces. The devoted actor even gained around 23kg to play the alcoholic Joe, which he lost in less than 3 days.

Olsen showed competent efforts in making Marie sweet and vulnerable, but she failed to deliver in her relationship with Brolin in the detective story. There was limited chemistry with Brolin as depicted from Joe and Marie’s forced instant romance. Copley took on a flamboyant villain role here, but his portrayal was a little over the top, which compromised the plot’s leading tragedy.

Lee is known for his intransigent and provocative approach to controversial subject matter, as shown in his films like Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X.

As for this film, Lee has carefully deployed his technical filmmaking style – his signature “double dolly” shot (a technique that he frequently uses to make the subject look like they are floating or gliding).

Instead of just mounting the camera on a wheeled dolly that rolls on tracks, Lee places the actor and camera on a single mobile platform. This effectively binds the actor to the camera and separates him from his surroundings, here making it look as if Brolin is gliding through the city streets.

Lee, who has been nominated for 2 Oscars and 2 Golden Globes, has successfully restaged some classic moments from the original, such as the hammer fight, which is reflected in the remake as a more detailed and choreographed scene that spreads over 2 levels of a warehouse. What’s lacking is emotional engagement as the sequences are often rushed through, compared to Park’s original.

This film encompasses a few witty, Lee-specific touches, like the poster in the hotel room that reads, “Welcome! What Can We Do to Improve Your Stay?” as a form of mockery of hospitality. However, Lee’s Oldboy is so similar to its predecessor that the disappointing remake seems unnecessary.

Although this version of the Oldboy left out the famous and queasy scene of an octopus being eaten alive, it still may be too much for the general audience due to the extreme violence, with Joe killing by slamming his hammer into skulls and throat-slitting scenes. This film seems a grey substitute of the original and stands inferior in terms of storyline development. Guess you can’t teach an Oldboy new tricks, after all.

Rating: 3/5
Release date: Nov 28
Runtime: 104 minutes
Language: English
Censorship rating: R21
Genre: Action/Drama/Mystery/Thriller
Director: Spike Lee
Main actors: Josh Brolin, Samuel L. Jackson, Elizabeth Olsen