There's something immediately dispiriting about the very thought of Spike Lee—once one of American cinema's most original voices—reduced to helming an unnecessary remake. With Oldboy, Lee shifts Park Chan-wook's dizzying vengeance film from South Korea to New Orleans. Abandon any optimism: This update proves only business. It's a flagrant bid for a hit from a filmmaker who could use one, shot in a location seemingly selected for tax credits.
As scripted by Mark Protosevich, the story marches to beats almost identical to those of Park's 2003 film. Joe Doucett, an ad man who could drink Roger Sterling under the table, suddenly and mysteriously winds up trapped in a hotel room that might as well be a prison cell. Taunted by televised updates about his ex-wife and daughter, Joe (Josh Brolin, stoic even by his stone-faced standards) decides that instead of rotting away, he'll bulk up and plot payback against his jailers. After 20 years, he's unceremoniously released and befriends a young nurse (Elizabeth Olsen). She, strangely, has no aversion to her new bestie bludgeoning people with hammers as he hunts down the puppet master responsible for his torment (a shrill and flamboyant Sharlto Copley).
While Park conjured a decidedly odd, darkly comic milieu in which his Grand Guignol could unfold with the eeriness and grace of a lucid dream, this calculated exercise is tripped up by an oppressive atmosphere and overly self-conscious set pieces. Rather than orchestrating their own chaos, Lee and Protosevich simply rework the original melees so revered by genre fans. An entire second floor has been added to the legendary hallway brawl, resulting in some impressive choreography: Joe crashes through an army of henchmen with the fluidity and ferocity of a rogue wave. But too often the filmmakers seem preoccupied with ensuring that they neither embarrass themselves nor incur the wrath of Park's fanboys. Ultimately, there's little perverse pleasure to be found in a revenge tale that's told without a trace of passion.
Critic's Grade: D
SEE it: Oldboy is rated R. It opens Wednesday at Clackamas, Cinema 21, Bridgeport, Lloyd Center.