Film Review: Oldboy

Spike Lee's brutal remake of a 2003 Korean cult classic doesn't bring much novelty to the table, but remains a solid and grim action tale about the cost of vengeance.

Spike Lee reimagines Korean auteur Park Chan-wook’s 2003 cult classic for American audiences with Oldboy, a sturdy do-over that nonetheless never quite justifies its own existence. Given the considerable reputation of Park’s original with genre fanboys, the only legitimate reason to revisit this material in English is to try something new. Yet at virtually every step, Lee—working from a script by Mark Protosevich that adds some nice 2013 flourishes, such as nods to Google and music-identifying app Shazam—plays it safe. That means admirers of Park’s film will find few novel twists—but a bit more gruesome violence, believe it or not—in this tale of a drunken lout, Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin), who after ditching his daughter’s third birthday party for a disastrous business dinner, gets sloshed and then, for reasons unknown, is kidnapped.

Awakening in what appears to be a motel room, albeit with rotating day-night paintings in place of a window, Joe soon comes to discover that he’s actually a prisoner in an elaborate cell, doomed to eat the same Chinese dumplings every night while knowing—courtesy of TV news programs—that he’s been framed for the rape and murder of his wife, which has left his daughter an orphan.

Lee establishes this set-up with a haunting air of mystery that’s tinged with cruelty—a fitting atmosphere given that Brolin’s protagonist is clearly demarcated as a bastard who, regardless of the crime that’s landed him in this horrifying situation, deserves some payback for years of being a “dick.” Motivated by a TV interview with his now-grown daughter that gives him hope for redemption, Joe stops drinking and starts turning himself into a granite slab of furious muscle, and when he’s finally granted release after 20 years in confinement, he initiates a search for the man responsible for putting him in that situation.

That mission puts him in contact with a medic named Marie (Elizabeth Olsen), who, in the film’s most contrived twist, soon comes to not only aid Joe in his quest but also to befriend and, later, love him. As with its predecessor, Oldboy can’t quite sell this relationship as anything more than a narrative device, though despite coming across as an unlikely pair, both Brolin and Olsen prove captivating leads, with the former in particular exuding requisite rage, sorrow and grief over his own culpability in his circumstances. Meanwhile, the truth behind Joe’s predicament is uncovered only after much sleuthing, which includes run-ins with Joe’s former prison warden (Samuel L. Jackson, sporting a blond mohawk) and a reunion with his old friend Chucky (Michael Imperioli)—as well as an astoundingly brutal fight between a hammer-wielding Joe and countless enemies that Lee shoots in an impressive single take and, upping the ante from Park’s original, is staged in upstairs/downstairs hallways.

When revelations do finally come, all of them involving a shadowy figure from Joe’s past named Adrian Pryce (Sharlto Copley, sporting a well-manicured beard and his native South African accent), they reveal Oldboy to be a story about the way in which revenge wreaks violence on both those who perpetrate it and their loved ones. A somewhat too-soft coda notwithstanding, Lee refuses to shy away from the irreparable damage wrought by his protagonist or the tremendous cost of his characters’ vengeance, in the process delivering an action fable that, to its credit, feels less thrilling than grim and ugly.