Spike Lee’s Oldboy: Remaking a Sick Classic

New viewers may feel the sick thrill of revelation, while fans of the Korean original will find little new

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This fall, several prominent movies have placed their stars in solitary confinement. Sandra Bullock in Gravity, Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips and Robert Redford in All Is Lost battled their fates in outer space or on the sea, with no visible allies and only their wits and will to save them. But they had it easy compared with Josh Brolin in Oldboy. Brolin is Joe Doucett, an advertising executive who collapses in a drunken stupor one night in 1993 and awakes in a locked hotel room, where he is held hostage for 20 years without knowing his crime or his abductor. Then Joe is freed, just as abruptly and mysteriously, and things really get weird.

Since its international premiere at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, Chan Wook-park’s Oldboy seized the imaginations of critics and filmmakers. Liberally adapted from a Japanese manga, the Korean thriller boasted a serpentine plot on the theme of crime, punishment and guilt, laced with scenes of extreme, if implied, violence: a tooth extraction via claw hammer and a man’s severing of his own tongue. Not to mention the devouring of a live octopus. (When Oldboy won the Grand Jury prize at Cannes, Chan thanked the cast, the crew—and the octopi who gave their lives for art.) So extravagant was the theme of blood lust and the depictions of torture that, when a Korean-born student killed 32 people in the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, some pundits blamed Chan’s movie.

(READ: Did Oldboy motivate the Va. Tech killer?)

Released furtively in the U.S. in 2005—it never played in more than 28 theaters—Oldboy earned only $700,000 at the domestic box office. Yet from the beginning, the movie enticed Hollywood with its remake possibilities; at one point, Steven Spielberg was set to direct Will Smith. Mark Protosevich, the screenwriter of Smith’s I Am Legend—and of Tarsem Singh’s The Cell, a sado-kidnap drama with Oldboy similarities (but released three years before Chan’s film)—did the adaptation, with Spike Lee, in his first Hollywood film since 2006’s Inside Man, as director.

Their Oldboy is a faithful boil-down of the original. It reprises most of the plot and much of the gore, and rechoreographs Chan’s flashy mid-film fight between the prisoner and a dozen or so thugs, all done in one continuous shot. (Lee extends that set piece to a 3½-min. take played out on three levels and with many more assailants.) A vivid yet academic remake, this Oldboy is shorter, leaner and lesser. Its chief appeal is affording Brolin the kind of red-meat—or, in Joe’s case, white-rat-meat—role that actors love: a character who gets to undergo a Calvary of physical and emotional pain.

(READ: Corliss’s review of the Chan Wook-park Oldboy by subscribing to TIME)

Trapped in a hotel room with no phone and almost no human contact, Joe must subsist on Chinese food and a bottle of liquor—the captor knows Joe is an alcoholic—pushed through a doggie flap in the door. The only vistas in this windowless room are a wall painting and a large TV screen. From news reports on the TV he learns that his wife is dead and he is the murder suspect. A docudrama show, “Mysteries of Crime,” explains that Joe’s daughter, three years old at the time of her mother’s death, has been adopted by a nice couple who, over the years, encouraged her to become a cellist.

Warm thoughts of his daughter prod Joe to pull himself together—pour the whiskey down the sink drain, get in shape through exercise and studying the movies of martial-arts movies he sees on TV—and plan his escape and ultimate revenge. He tracks down his keeper (Samuel L. Jackson in white-mohawk coiffure), who under some duress tells Joe that he’s just the warden; he doesn’t know the identity of Mr. Big. But Joe doesn’t get out on his own; Mr. Big springs him after 20 years. And that’s when the sick convolutions in the Rip Van Wrinkle fable kick in. If Joe can understand what crime he committed to deserve such punishment, Mr. Big will kill himself and allow Joe to live.

(SEE: Park Chan-wook talk about Oldboy and his American debut feature Stoker)

A metaphorical morality play about the importance of remembering any evil act we may have committed, Oldboy is also a horrifying riff on what psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross isolated as the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Joe’s torturer (finally revealed as District 9′s Sharlto Copley, sniggering manically through a role previously bruited for Christian Bale, Colin Firth and Clive Owen) pounds home the Kübler-Ross connection by quoting her belief that “we are solely responsible for our choices, and we have to accept the consequences of every deed, word and thought throughout our lifetime.”

To extend his own lifetime, Joe relies on an old bartender pal (Michael Imperioli) and a helpful social worker (Elizabeth Olsen). Can they help him tease out the guilty secrets from his past and present? After several years spent fruitfully on documentaries (the Katrina elegy When the Levees Broke and the Michael Jackson Bad 25), plus an odd deployment into World War II (The Miracle of St. Anna) and the below-low-budget Brooklyn-set drama Red Hook Summer, Lee executes a run-for-cover move. Not that there’s something wrong with being a director for hire; working on any project keeps the artistic instrument tuned.

(READ: Corliss on Spike Lee’s Michael Jackson doc Bad 25)

On Oldboy, Lee tautly coils the tension, then releases it with a resounding boing! that will leave some viewers shocked (or just perplexed). Cinematographer Sean Babbitt, who has shot director Steve McQueen’s Hunger, Shame and 12 Years a Slave, gives the movie a gritty off-color look that complements its Greek-tragedy ravelings. And the cast does fine, particularly Olsen—hoping to save a man who thinks he has nothing to lose—and Brolin, who when he shaves his head in prison looks like a beefier Matt Damon, but with a mean streak and a more desperate resolve. Yet Lee’s impulse here is less Why remake Chan’s film (whose title hints at its climactic flashback twists) than Why not? Like Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, a bloated Americanizing of the Hong Kong cop movie Infernal Affairs, the Lee Oldboy will startle newbies with its story ingenuities and morbid revelations, while leaving connoisseurs of the source film wondering why Hollywood couldn’t have left great enough alone.

(READ: Why Infernal Affairs is better than The Departed)