I cant pretend that I havent seen the original Korean version of OLD BOY, the one that blew away an international audience and earned cult status. Yet, even knowing the twist, nicely rearranged for this remake by screenwriter Mark Protosevich, is not enough reason to dismiss this flick. Despite Josh Brolins committed performance as a drunkard turned avenger, despite a visual playfulness by director Spike Lee, there is the whiff of staleness to this effort that prevents it from being the visceral blend of horror, action, and black humor that Park Chan-Wook made of turning the original manga into a film.
A variation of The Count of Monte Cristo by Dumas, the film tells the tall tale of Joseph Doucett, imprisoned for 20 years by person or persons unknown, and framed while incarcerated for the death of his hated ex-wife. Little information from the outside world filters through to Joe on the widescreen television, except for the progress of his daughter, Mia, adopted by a loving couple and one her way to becoming a talented cellist. The prison is a mid-range motel room with a cross on the wall, a bible on the nightstand, a Wyeth on the wall that indicated day or night, with food, a monotonous series of Chinese dumplings and sadism delivered on a tray via a slot in the door. The tray always contains copious amounts of vodka. Truth be told, Joe was not much use to himself or anyone else on the outside, but now that he has time to reflect, he turns over a new leaf, pouring the booze down the drain, working out to the suggestive fitness programs on television, and plotting his escape, one scrape at a time.
On the outside, where he is delivered via a designer trunk, his plan for revenge gets some help from Marie (Elizabeth Olsen), and do-gooder with a thorough grounding in first aid, loads of empathy ,and enough trust in her fellow human to not call the police on Joe. It will all come in handy as Joe finds himself constantly embroiled in one violent situation after another, ranging from the slow torture of his former jailer (Samuel L. Jackson with a fetching poodle cut), to a send-up of classic chop-socky action sequences pitting Joe against a horde of oncoming assailants armed with everything from guns to 2x4s.
To its credit, little of the originals rawness has been softened with translation, but the over-the-top violence teeters uncertainly between gratuitous and funny when the balance should be between terrifying and fascinatingly grotesque. The existential question of personal responsibility is still there, starting with the dauntingly long list Joe makes of everyone who might want to get even with him. The longer Joe wanders through the labyrinth of oblique clues, and taunting by phone from Sharlto Copely in affected beard and soignee fingernails, the more the energy seeps away rather than builds.
There is no end of style to this production, and if the suspense were half as well executed, we would have a much better film. As it is, it lacks the same sense of outrage that the original had, and which makes it compelling viewing time after time.
OLDBOY is an interesting failure, but a failure nevertheless in the face of its inspiration.