Drunken slob of an ad man Joe Doucett (Brolin) is kidnapped from the streets in 1993 and held for 20 years in a hotel room-style prison cell with no windows, no communications and no explanation. When he’s suddenly released 20 years later, and tasked with finding out what happened, he starts a vengeful quest for the truth...
When it was first announced, the remake of beloved cult Korean thriller Oldboy was greeted with the usual howls of disgust and claims that it would do a disservice to Park Chan-wook’s original. When Spike Lee came aboard and recruited an impressive cast that included Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, Samuel L. Jackson and Sharlto Copley, the tide turned briefly in the other direction. So what is the final result? The truth is, this new Oldboy lies somewhere in between on the quality meter, but still fails to do enough to make it seem entirely necessary.
Lee and writer Mark Protosevich certainly haven’t embarrassed themselves with this new interpretation, which takes most of the major beats and bolts on with a few new ideas and character shadings. The essence of the main man’s torturous incarceration and his violent campaign to discover what was really behind it remains intact to fuel the film. A few elements – such as the infamous octopus scene – are gone, vanished so as to make something that appeals more to Western audiences than the Korean story. Making up for that is the majority of the ensemble, with Olsen and Imperioli particularly impressive. And it’s motored by Brolin’s brio, with the actor throwing himself into a role that demands he be destroyed and rebuilt on screen, going from a drunk arse to a scraggily bearded wreck and finally a confused, driven fighting machine. He makes you care about Joe’s journey even as you realise how much the man has done to bring all this upon himself with his behaviour. Lee also lets loose in the fight scenes, infusing them with a chaotic, determined and stylish life you wish the rest of the film was similarly able to channel.
Yet, clinging to some of the more outlandish facets (which will not be discussed here for the sake of those who have not seen the 2004 take), Lee’s effort feels like a cover band attempt at Park Chan-wook’s thriller, one that lost much of the vibrant, boundary-pushing weirdness along the way. And that’s despite giving Samuel L. Jackson one of the strangest hairdos he’s had since The Spirit.
Lee and his team have made a film that feels worth watching, but those who’ve seen both will spend a lot of time comparing the two, and “Newboy” comes up wanting.
Reviewed by James White