A favorite pastime of those who love Asian film is to carp about Hollywood’s annoying tendency to lay claim to and defile their favorites. But Spike Lee’s Oldboy is the remake that came too late, so benign and unmemorable that not even people who loved Park Chan-wook’s 2003 original will be able to muster much outrage. Unlike the picture it’s based on — itself adapted from a manga by Garon Tsuchiya and Nobuaki Minegishi — Lee’s Oldboy is drab and humorless, devoid of the stylistic curlicues that can get you through even a bad Spike Lee film. Like its hero, a clueless lug who’s imprisoned for 20 years by an invisible captor for a transgression he doesn’t remember committing, it stumbles onto the movie landscape, blinking in the glare and wondering, Where am I? Where did I come from? It’s not just a movie about brainwashing; it’s a brainwashed movie.
You’d need to have completely forgotten Park’s original — or not to have seen it at all — to get any electrical charge off Lee’s version. Josh Brolin plays Joe Doucett, a bumbling and not particularly lovable drunk who, after toddling off one rainy night with a stranger bearing a patterned umbrella, awakens in a prison cell that resembles a cut-rate motel room, complete with eyesore wall art. (In this case, it’s a campy, old-timey advertisement featuring the hyper-friendly face of a black bellhop above the legend “Welcome! What Can We Do to Improve Your Stay?” That’s one of the movie’s few witty, Lee-specific touches.) Every day some faceless person shoves the same dinner — Chinese-takeout dumplings and a pint of vodka — through a tiny door in Doucett’s cell. He sees no human beings other than the ones on his TV set, and even that potentially comforting presence brings bad news: From watching a cheesy true-life crime show, he learns that the world believes he has vanished after raping and murdering his estranged wife, essentially leaving his three-year-old daughter an orphan.
The sight of his little girl brings tears — transformation alert! — to this cranky jamoke’s eyes. And then one day, after 20 years in his Comfort Inn prison, he’s spilled back out into the world with a smartphone and a black suit. Whenever the phone rings, it’s a creepy caller dropping some mysterious directive or challenge in his lap. Luckily, Doucett also meets Marie (Elizabeth Olsen), a compassionate humanitarian aid worker. She’s the sunny-day counterpart to his thundercloud mug, eager to help him unravel the secrets of his past, even though his sexual charisma is translated only through the occasional grunt and the fact that he looks like a constipated, beefed-up Michael Shannon.
Brolin’s not a bad actor, but, at least here, there’s no poetry in his soul. And you can’t make a version of Oldboy without poetry. Park’s version had operatic grandeur on its side — somber, grimly funny, and soul-baring, it almost felt more Russian than Korean, hitting Dostoyevskian notes of despair and redemption. In the movie’s most famous scene, the newly freed Oh Dae-su (played by Korean stage actor Choi Min-sik, with eyes like grave infinity pools) staggers into a sushi restaurant, where he devours a still-wriggling octopus — on the way down the hatch, the creature makes one last desperate grab at life, its moist tentacles clinging to his lips. The scene is memorable for obvious reasons, but the way Oh Dae-su orders that meal is really the clincher: Like a man who needs to be brought back from the dead, he tells the proprietress — with whom he’ll later fall in love — “I want to eat something alive.”
Brolin, too, needs to be brought back from the dead, and how. His performance is sullen and somnambulistic, and not even Olsen, with her winsome, velvety demeanor, can enliven him. The movie’s chief baddies, as played by Samuel L. Jackson and Sharlto Copley, are almost comically unsinister. And strangely — or perhaps not — this Oldboy is far more violent than Park’s. Park let just enough brutality through to make you shiver, always cutting away at the optimum split-second. Lee puts the savagery — slivers of flesh tossed into a wastebasket, a severed tongue presented in a folded-up napkin — right in front of us, but it has no weight or meaning.
Lee doesn’t even re-create the octopus scene, instead nodding to it with a puny visual joke. This Oldboy is all mechanics, boiling the original story down to its central plot points, and it screws up even those — the movie’s big reveal, an unnecessarily complicated revision of the original’s, barely makes sense. Oldboy doesn’t even feel like a work-for-hire project, the kind of challenge Lee might take on because he happened to be free and could use the money. Colorless and soulless in the extreme, it bears no one’s fingerprints at all. There’s no reason for this Oldboy to exist. It’s so DOA, you stumble out of it wanting to eat something alive.