Spike Lee can’t get a handle on ‘Oldboy’ remake

Joe Doucett walks into an Asian restaurant and gets distracted by a large fish tank full of soon-to-be menu items. He stops and peers at a small octopus clinging to the side of the tank, then moves along in his terrible journey.

This moment in the “Oldboy” remake might suggest Joe’s empathy for an imprisoned creature, but really it’s there as an Easter Egg for fans of the original 2003 South Korean film, a movie with one of the all-time showstopping moments in the cinema history of seafood.

This nod to the first “Oldboy” recalls what was startling and shocking about Chan-wook Park’s film—the sense that it would do anything and go anywhere. Nothing was safe. In Spike Lee’s remake, the plot is generally followed but the edges are smoother.

Still, there’s plenty to be weirded out by: We meet Joe (played by Josh Brolin) as a first-class jerk, kidnapped by unseen evildoers and held in a small room without explanation for 20 years. When he re-emerges, his plan is to find his now-adult daughter and get back at the people who locked him up. And, of course, to find out why any of this happened.

The story is so wild (it has its roots in a Japanese manga) that realism is the last thing it needs — thus Lee’s characteristically overdone approach is actually not a bad fit here. Brolin’s casting is also shrewd. The actor isn’t afraid to appear unsympathetic, and his simian features add to the sense of man reduced to the most stupidly functional parts of his brain. Plus he’s spookily credible as a drunk.

Elizabeth Olsen (“Martha Marcy May Marlene”) plays a social worker who helps out the confused Joe, while Samuel L. Jackson is overqualified for his role as one of Joe’s tormentors.

Sharlto Copley — recently a demonic presence in “Elysium” — is around to supply some extra menace, and his campy performance goes to the heart of why “Oldboy” eventually falls down. Copley’s over the top, but the movie hasn’t been cartoonish until he arrives; are we watching a grim conventional drama or a movie that can’t take its lunatic plot seriously?

Where the 2003 film plunged straight ahead in its full-on commitment to insanity, Spike Lee hasn’t solved that problem, and the result doesn’t find its proper footing. That’s good news for octopi, not so much for the rest of us.

“Oldboy” (2½ stars)

Spike Lee directs this remake of the wild 2003 South Korean film, in which a man is imprisoned in isolation for years, without an explanation. His re-emergence in the world sets off a search for why this happened to him — a good role for Josh Brolin here, although Lee never quite figures out whether we’re supposed to take this lunatic story seriously or with a little bit of tongue in cheek (the latter supplied by Sharlto Copley, who goes over the top).

Rated: R for violence, nudity, language.

Showing: Various area theaters.

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