Another week, another mystifying Hollywood remake - this time out, former maverick Spike Lee has a go at Chan-wook Park's brilliantly dark revenge drama, Old Boy
Ten years ago, Korean director Chan-wook Park's Old Boy became an immediate cult hit. In a compelling tale of human endurance, dark revenge and redemption, leading man Min-Sik Choi was a vessel for all the bad and good of humanity. With this remake, former enfant terrible Spike Lee drops any pretence of subtlety and merely twists the knife harder and harder, harshly magnifying the most disturbing elements of the original - all the while taking liberties with Park's original morality tale.
The new Old Boy may crackle and teem with anger and ever-circling fear but Hollywood convention renders it numbing and distancing rather than engrossing and thrilling.
The ever-watchable Josh Brolin takes the lead as Joe Doucett, a drunken advertising exec and absentee dad who’s all bust out of shape and sense by regular jolts of hard liquor and a lack of ethics and morality. In what initially looks like a Swimming with Sharks set-up, one rain-washed night Doucett is snatched from the city streets and awakes to find himself imprisoned in a seedy, sickly-lit room with a TV for company. His only contact with the outside world are daily deliveries of Chinese food and a naggin of vodka shoved through a hatch at the bottom of the heavy metal door.
The weeks turn to months and the months to years and Doucett is offered no explanation about his imprisonment. Park’s movie is at its most intriguing during these early stages as the limits of human endurance are tested and inevitable madness begins to settle like the slow motion drip drip of a Dali clock.
Not even the Count of Monte Cristo had it this bad and to be fair, Lee does a very good job with Doucett’s descent and then gradual determination to break out and track down his tormentors. During his incarceration, he learns he is suspected of his estranged wife’s murder and that his daughter has been adopted, setting up a revenge thriller we can really get with but sadly, once Doucett is suddenly set free and back in the harsh light of day, Lee’s movie becomes a poorly-paced mash-up of Get Carter, Gerard Butler’s truly horrendous Law Abiding Citizen, and a torturous whodunnit caper.
Aided by a very impressive Elizabeth Olsen as Marie, s sympathetic nurse whom he meets after seeking medical attention, a now super-fit, tanned and super-fine Brolin (amazing what two decades without natural light, proper food and bad TV can do for a person) trundles about in a well-tailored suit committing crimes with impunity - some going for a man already wanted for murder - as he breaks down doors looking for his enemy.
Brolin is a cool, glowering presence, cracking skulls with a hammer and slowly falling for Marie. Lee bottles, or cops out of, the celebrated squid scene but does elect to film some of the most gruesome acts of violence I’ve seen in a mainstream film in years. Samuel Jackson is evil incarnate as the “hotel” owner but the prize for cartoon villainy goes to Sharlto Copley as a creepy master of mind games and moral degradation who has more in common with Dick Dastardly than a Machivellian manipulator.
There's some decent action and mass punch-ups but Lee bends an already riveting story into torturous and frankly silly shapes for this remake. Lessons are learnt by Doucett; the lesson for the viewer is far less time-consuming and violent - avoid the new Old Boy and watch the original again or, if you’re lucky enough, watch it for the first time.