In 2006, Spike Lee released one of his more surprising projects, the crime caper "Inside Man." Starring Clive Owen and Denzel Washington, it lacked Lee's usual overtones of racial tension and much of his visual style, but it turned out to be a smart, solid cat-and-mouser. If "Inside Man" proved anything, it was that Lee, a highly idiosyncratic director, could do Hollywood entertainment as capably as anyone.
But can Lee translate a slice of gonzo Korean pulp into salable American fare? That's his assignment on "Oldboy," a remake of Chan-wook Park's 2005 cult hit, and it's a much taller order. The original was a singular combination of genres: film noir, chopsocky, Looney Tunes, grotty psychological drama. Few directors could naturally jibe with such weird material, and Lee isn't one of them.
Lee's "Oldboy," written by Mark Protosevich, follows the narrative blueprint of the original (which was based on a Japanese manga). Josh Brolin plays Joe Doucett, an alcoholic advertising executive who, after a particularly blotto night, wakes up in a dingy hotel room with a bed, shower, television and no exit. Nearly 20 years later, without explanation, he is released. Joe discovers that he was jailed by a mysterious billionaire (Sharlto Copley, "Elysium") who makes him a promise: If Joe can figure out why he was incarcerated -- and the answer won't be pleasant -- his former captor will gladly kill himself. That's an offer Joe can't refuse.
Lee tries various tactics to match or outdo the original film, but few of them work. He turns Brolin into a grittier, more serious hero, but still marches him through several silly martial-arts sequences. Elizabeth Olsen seems too intelligent to play Marie, a trusting sap, and Samuel L. Jackson, as one of Joe's torturers, has been dressed up in an eye-watering costume (blonde hair, purple frock coat) that recalls his supervillain in "Unbreakable." Only Copley strikes the right balance between hammy and creepy; once again, he steals the show.
"Oldboy" is never boring, but it's ultimately unsatisfying. Lee never manages to put his unique stamp on what was already a unique movie.
PLOT A man is held captive for nearly 20 years and then, without explanation, set free.
CAST Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, Sharlto Copley
BOTTOM LINE Spike Lee can't find the right tone in this remake of the 2005 Korean cult hit. Bloodier and goofier, yet less funny and less thrilling, it's a near-miss.