Who should you feel sorriest for watching the new Oldboy? Josh Brolin, for both shedding and gaining weight to play the lead role? Elizabeth Olsen, for enduring both a nude scene and a near-rape scene as a thankless expository character? Sharlto Copley, for committing to a theatrically over-the-top villain with nowhere to go? Or Spike Lee, a genuinely important and unique director, hiding his light under a bushel and disappearing into a remake that everyone knew from the start had no reason to exist?
It's probably kindest to feel sorry for everyone then move on as quickly as possible, since this Oldboy-- a remake of the 2003 South Korean cult favorite-- has almost nothing that will last in your memory. It lifts the exact same plot of mysterious imprisonment and violent revenge, with Brolin stepping in the role as a rowdy businessman who goes on a bender the night of his daughter's birthday and, for no apparent reason, is imprisoned in a hotel-room-like cell for 20 years. The prison scenes are among the most interesting, thanks to the surreal presence of an imaginary bellboy and Brolin's own ferocity, but Lee also marks the passage of time with exploitative footage of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina-- a scattershot approach that's a sign of the sloppiness to come.
Brolin's Joe Doucett is busy plotting his escape when he's suddenly freed, and sets about trying to figure out who imprisoned him, and why. Joining him is Olsen's Marie, a young doctor with no apparent reason to be interested in this manic man, plus Michael Imperioli as Joe's old friend. The search gets even trickier when Copley's villain, all sculpted facial hair and unplaceable European accent, shows up to confess he's responsible, but then issues Joe a challenge. If Joe can't figure out who Copley is and why he tortured him for 20 years, Copley will kill Joe's daughter, whom he apparently has held captive.
A tale of revenge, and even one that maintains the famous crazy twists at the end of Park Chan-wook's original Oldboy, could be translated in a fascinating way to America, where we're basically obsessed with getting revenge in the most violent way possible. But no one is able to get out of the original film's shadow, much less Lee, who incorporates his signature double dolly shot and a few characters staring directly at the camera, but who also seems hamstrung by recreating the first film's signature moments. Yes, there is a hallway fight scene in which Brolin is armed with a hammer, and yes, it takes place (almost) in a single take. But the choreography feels stagey and goofy, and the scene's placement in the film just a little off. Lee has complained specifically about that shot-- his original cut was three hours, and the final film is 102 minutes-- but it's hard to know that what he had there was any better. Lee, not exactly known for shooting hand-to-hand action, was given a no-win situation in recreating that scene, and it's baffling that they didn't want to scrap it entirely and replace it with something new.
As Oldboy moves on it feels more and more generic, as if a studio grabbed hold of the wheel and turned it into something more resembling a late-90s Ashley Judd thriller than either the original or any of Lee's films. Samuel L. Jackson (as the hotel prison manager) and Copley give wildly campy performances that are badly out of of step with the grim-faced Olsen and Brolin, who often seem disconnected even when sharing a scene. Something, somewhere got lost in translation, not even counting the travel from Korea to the anonymous American city where this takes place (seeing Lee separated from New York is possibly the most heartbreaking part of this). A remake of Oldboy could still, in theory, be good. But one this muddled, this blatantly confused about its own purpose, only makes everyone involved look worse for being part of it.