120 min., rated R.
It's surprising how long it took for Tinseltown to secure the rights to remake Park Chan-wook's one crazily twisted, shockingly perverse and squeamishly violent 2003 South Korean revenge-pulp cult opus, not only memorable for its real live-octopus-eating scene and brutal manga-style violence but an extremely lurid conclusion. One of the few American remakes to mostly reclaim the daring, danger, and darkness of its foreign-language precursor, Spike Lee's "Oldboy" (credited as a film this time and not a "joint") somehow avoided enough cuts to appease the MPAA ratings board and not lose its nerve in translation as a studio release. It's a ballsy, grisly piece of work about really bad karma and the most elaborate revenge scheme since, well, the original "Oldboy."
In 1993, Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin), a boozy, loutish advertising executive, is hated by his ex-wife who scolds him for missing his three-year-old daughter's birthday. At a work pitch in a restaurant, he propositions the client's wife and loses the deal. After going towards a woman under a yellow umbrella one dark, rainy night, Joe later wakes up in a dingy room he initially takes for a motel room that which he cannot escape. A scenic country painting standing as a fake window changes. He's delivered vodka and Chinese dumplings through a doggie door each day. Then he catches a newscast, reporting that his ex-wife has been raped and killed and Joe, himself, is the prime suspect. Twenty years tick by based on news events, from 1997's second inauguration of President Clinton, to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, to, finally, President Obama's second inauguration in 2013. Via a TV crime show, he learns that his daughter, who's been adopted, grown up. Between kung-fu movies and aerobics exercise programming, Joe builds muscle, ready to take out the men that have put him in that cell, framed him for murder, and find his daughter. Finally set free into the present-day world and waking up in a box in a field, Joe won't stop until he gets revenge on those who imprisoned him for two decades in solitary confinement, and hopefully he can get an answer to why.
A grimly sordid, unusual, and very R-rated retooling, "Oldboy" doesn't relent and compromises very little, allowing the film to make its own mark without being a slavish imitation. Director Spike Lee and writer Mark Protosevich (2007's "I Am Legend") expand more on the backstory of Joe and his captivity, showing him in a drunken stupor before his kidnapping and then, through close-ups, sustaining enough uncomfortable claustrophobia in one room that would make anyone go stir-crazy. For those who have already seen this story play out, it's hard not to compare, most of all the climax and finale, but let's focus on what Lee's "Oldboy" does right. A grinning black bellhop (Cinqué Lee, Spike's brother) in a "Welcome! What Can We Do To Improve Your Stay?" poster on the wall of Joe's room is a small but sinister touch for a hallucination. Joe also befriends a mouse, à la "The Green Mile," that births babies, with sad results. An early brawl on a football field is too abrupt and campy, but later, filmed in a similar tracking shot to the original, the 1970s kung fu or Steven Seagal movie-inspired set-piece that has Joe fighting off a bunch of foes with a hammer and then a knife on two levels of a warehouse is impressively choreographed like an operatic, almost-farcical comic book with a macabre sense of humor. A visceral, teeth-gritting comeuppance on the prison warden (Samuel L. Jackson with a blonde mohawk on his bald head) with a box cutter actually rivals the Korean film's teeth-extraction scene. In relation to the original, there is a passing nod to octopus that no one eats, and it's just as well because Joe's taste testing of dumplings in different "Dragon" Chinese restaurants is disgusting enough for the gag reflex.
Presenting Joe as a thoroughly unlikable jerk is an interesting, more detached choice. Josh Brolin is riveting here, traversing into unthinkably dark places and capturing his inner-outer torment before and after he's been imprisoned like a caged animal. From what he goes through, one is able to eventually sympathize with him as what he has to live with has been chosen for him. The involvement of medical worker Marie takes a small leap of faith and should have been decelerated to grow and heighten the film's impact. Fortunately, ever-talented rising star Elizabeth Olsen has such a warmth and modest sensuality about her that one might not scrutinize such plotting in the moment. Sharlto Copley is deliciously evil and occasionally cartoony, but a truly one-of-a-kind villain as the effeminate billionaire with a gloriously punishing m.o. and apparent belief that revenge is a dish best served cold. Michael Imperioli also lends strong support as Chucky, Joe's former classmate and a bartender who was the last person to see him before he disappeared.
There is a fine line between a film that takes bleakly disturbing turns and one whose sole purpose is to turn stomachs. Making its way around the genre spectrum as a nightmarish chamber piece, a brutal exploitation revenge-thriller, a serpentine investigative mystery, and a taboo-crushing tragedy of lost souls being ruined, "Oldboy" organically hinges on one staggeringly queasy revelation—the reason why the stranger set Joe free from captivity—and it might put a bad taste in the mouths of the less ready and willing audiences, but it should provoke and disturb anyone who watches. It might not match the ambiguity and emotional power of Park Chan-wook's version, especially with a new, softer denouement, but it still has an indelibly sick bite. A word of warning, though: "Oldboy" is not for the faint of heart and not really palatable for casual moviegoers.