Waking up in the middle of nowhere — within a major city, no less — he has an understandable obsession with finding his daughter, figuring out who has stolen that many years from his life, and most of all, learning why he's been imprisoned. After all, what did he ever do to drive someone to such lengths?
It almost goes without saying that he's on the edge of madness or even over the brink. His condition is exacerbated when he receives a phone call from his persecutor (Sharlto Copley, from “District 9”), challenging him to, in essence, “come and get me.” In spite of this crazed turmoil, Joe manages to bond with Marie (Elizabeth Olsen), a community worker with her own past problems.
The new “Oldboy” is a remake of Park Chan-wook's identically named 2003 Korean production. Remakes present thorny problems for filmmakers and critics alike. Chief among them is the fidelity to the source material. It might be best to approach the film as though it just sprang fully formed from the filmmakers' skulls.
But it's often impossible: You can't remake “Gone with the Wind” and have the South win the war or even just have Rhett and Scarlett walk off into the sunset. There is an assumed knowledge on the part of the audience.
In the case of Lee's “Oldboy,” the problem is at its worst, because the earlier film was, like most subtitled films, unseen by (as a guess) 99% of the American moviegoing audience. At the same time it has been seen by virtually every critic in the country, with the vast majority liking it and a large portion adoring it.
Count me among the passionate: When I was asked in 2009 to list my top 10 of the decade — a ridiculous endeavor — Park's “Oldboy” was number five. In 2005 I wrote, “The story is utterly preposterous ... but the style is so mesmerizing that we would likely not notice until long after leaving the theater.”
Lee is in a “damned if you do, damned if you don't” position: “being faithful to the original” suggests a wholly unnecessary retread; to do the opposite gets you lambasted for screwing up someone else's great art. “We're not doing a remake,” Lee has said in interviews. “We're doing a reinterpretation” of both Park's movie and of the manga series (by Garon Tsuchiya and Nobuaki Minegishi) that inspired Park. “[Brolin] met with Park and asked for his blessing, and Park gave his blessing and said, ‘Make your own film. Don't remake ours.' That was my thinking from the beginning anyway.”
The openings of the two versions of “Oldboy” give us an immediate look at the difference between the films throughout. Park's first scene, an event that in straight chronology should be appear a third of the way in, is unforgettably striking, the equivalent of the opening “splash panels” in comic books. It grabs us by the neck, and sets the “fever dream” tone for the rest. Lee moves it back to its natural place and instead starts with the prelude to the kidnapping — nice stuff, but frequently too blatantly expositional. Lee is telling us from the start that he's operating in a far more realistic world than Park; he's cleaning up the plot details, thus taking the “fever” out of “fever dream.”
The casting also presents some problems. Choi Min-sik, the star of Park's film, is on the small side, a little chubby, and meek. The first third of the story shows him transforming, through need and madness, into an indomitable tough guy. Brolin starts out too formidable and handsome; as a result, his transformation is way less interesting and gripping. It's barely a transformation at all. And at crucial moments when we're supposed to feel some sympathy for Oh Dae-su, Choi (plus makeup artists) projects a traumatized, sad sack expression that Brolin's leading-man looks make impossible. The sin is not that Lee has strayed from Park's path, but that, in doing so, he softens the film's impact, which is hard to justify.
In the other direction, Copley's villain is so weird that he looks like he's staggered in from some Tim Burton fantasy. He seems to be in a different film than the rest of the cast.
Some Hollywood remakes defend themselves by claiming to bring the story to a broader audience. In the case of “Oldboy,” however, this is a negative argument. For anyone who hasn't seen Park's film, the new “Oldboy” is a giant spoiler, forever diminishing the potential impact of seeing that amazing work for the first time.
--ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).