Opens Wed., Nov. 27 at Sundance and other theaters. Rated R. 104 minutes.
Joe Doucett walks into an Asian restaurant and gets distracted by a large fish tank full of soon-to-be menu items. He stops and peers at a small octopus clinging to its side, then moves along on his terrible journey. This moment in the Oldboy remake might suggest Joe’s empathy for an imprisoned creature, but really it’s there as an Easter egg for fans of the original 2003 South Korean revenge drama, a movie with one of the all-time show-stopping moments in the cinema history of seafood.
This nod to the first Oldboy recalls what was startling and shocking about Park Chan-wook’s film: It might do anything and go anywhere—nothing was safe. In Spike Lee’s redo, the plot is generally followed, but the edges are smoother. Still, there’s plenty to be weirded out by: We meet Joe (Josh Brolin) as a first-class jerk, kidnapped by unseen evildoers and held in a small room without explanation for 20 years. When he re-emerges, his plan is to find his now-adult daughter and get back at the people who locked him up. And, of course, to find out why any of that happened. The story is so wild (it has its roots in a Japanese manga) that realism is the last thing it needs—thus Lee’s characteristically overdone approach is actually not a bad fit here. Brolin’s casting is also shrewd. The actor isn’t afraid to appear unsympathetic, and his simian features add to the sense of a man reduced to the most stupidly functional parts of his brain. Plus he’s spookily credible as a drunk.
Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene) plays a social worker who helps the confused Joe, while Samuel L. Jackson is overqualified for his role as one of Joe’s tormentors. Sharlto Copley—recently a demonic presence in Elysium—is around to supply some extra menace, and his campy performance goes to the heart of why the new Oldboy eventually falls down. Copley’s over the top, but the movie hasn’t been cartoonish until he arrives; are we watching a grim, conventional drama or a movie that can’t take its lunatic plot seriously? Lee hasn’t solved that problem. Where the original Oldboy (seen here in 2005) plunged straight ahead in its full-on commitment to insanity, this remake doesn’t find its proper footing. That’s good news for octopi, not so much for the rest of us.