I feel I must preface this review by admitting, unfortunately, that I have not seen the reportedly brilliant, shockingly successful source material for Spike Lee’s Oldboy, Park Chun-wook’s 2003 Korean cult classic described by one critic as “adapted from a manga comic-book, which was in turn adapted from an overwhelming desire to see what damage hammers do to foreheads.” As I have been deprived of this undoubtedly awesome experience (while most critics have not), I will refrain from making any comparisons between Lee’s movie and its inspiration (which most critics have made). It is my understanding that the new and unimproved Oldboy falls sadly short of its predecessor, but, for those of us who haven’t seen the Korean version, this reimagining can still be a lot of fun.
Although the negative reviews have probably managed to kill Lee’s film by now, Oldboy is a movie worth resuscitating. With its big name actors, celebrity director, and commercial genre qualities, the movie is not a masterpiece by any stretch, but it is a lively entry into Lee’s ongoing campaign to push into the mainstream (25th Hour, Inside Man). The film has an obsessive, hypnotic quality that could only be dampened by comparisons to the original. Even rarer, it’s an adult movie at a time when PG-13 films fill the multiplexes, a Nicolas Winding Refn for the masses.
Oldboy follows Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin), a disgraced ad executive and absent father sodden with drink and despair. Joe is presented in the first few scenes sexually harassing a client’s wife and, needless to say, blowing the deal, getting obscenely plastered and generally making a complete, pitiable ass of himself—none of these actions, we gather, are particularly rare events. He gets what’s coming to him, and then some.
The boorish businessman is abducted and imprisoned by mysterious assailants in a phony motel room eerily reminiscent of Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train; it even has the same creepy, campy, old-timey smiling attendant in bright red bellhop uniform (Spike’s brother, Cinque Lee) looking down from a poster that reads, “Welcome! What Can We Do to Improve Your Stay?” as a mockery of hospitality. For the next 20 years, Chinese food and vodka are shoved under Joe’s door at regular intervals, sans explanation. A pillow he sorrowfully paints a face on in his own blood and a family of mice become his only companions. The world passes him by on a TV screen, where he finds out that he has been framed for the brutal rape and murder of his ex-wife and that his daughter has disappeared into the foster home system. He also watches president after president being sworn in, a succession of overwhelming images of natural and man-made disasters and, as luck would have it, a whole bunch of workout routines and martial arts programs that will soon come in handy.
Then, as easily and inexplicably as he has been captured, he is released. Emerging out of a Louis Vuitton trunk in the middle of an empty field, the former slob, spiritually and physically renewed, is reborn as an avenging angel—complete with smartphone, all-black designer suit and sunglasses.
The long list of suspects Joe formulates—former bosses, ex-girlfriends, betrayed partners, dubious creditors and others who might hate Joe enough to do this to him—goes on and on. He knows not what fatal transgression he’s committed to deserve such punishment, but he never doubts that he deserves it. Obvious, clichéd self-imprisonment metaphors aside, the brilliance and secret of the movie lie in the fact that no one could possibly hate the protagonist as much as he hates himself; the room is only a physical representation of the stifling doom he carries around every day like a snail’s shell of existential dread. Why he’s jailed (and where) doesn’t really matter, as the film’s final, bleakly ironic moments prove.
Brolin is an actor who can make even routine Hollywood fare seem more interesting than it is. This magnetic, haunted performance as a man coming centrifugally apart doesn’t disappoint, displaying both hard action hero machismo and pained, debauched vulnerability.
Aided by a sweet and idealistic young social worker (Elizabeth Olsen), Joe sets off on his quest to find his mysterious captors and reunite with his daughter, although he’s to discover, sadly, that the truth doesn’t always set you free. He quickly uncovers who has imprisoned him and where (which creates a short and foul-mouthed role for Samuel L. Jackson) but the revelations—some easy to predict, some less important than they appear—keep piling on. The rich (and rather effete) sadist who ordered Joe to be kept a prisoner for twenty years (played by South African actor Sharlto Copley of District 9 and Elysium) simply shows up and offers Joe a deal too good to be true. It is true; it is also a trap.
Oldboy evolves in its own illogically logical way, flowing from situation to situation and image to image like a dream (or nightmare) reverie, linking the situations and images in an almost free-associative manner. Certain compositions have such a painterly, illustrated nature they seem to spring directly from the pages of a graphic novel—which makes sense, considering the inspiration for the original film was a Japanese comic book.
Boiling down to a understatedly perfect, tragically poetic denouement and bathed in an impossible-to-pinpoint mood of paranoia and discomfort—for the viewers as well as the characters—Oldboy makes for suspenseful and occasionally spellbinding cinema, a Kafkaesque fable of guilt and punishment turned revenge fantasy. But it all feels a bit off, almost antiquated, awkward and artificial. It’s too carefully constructed, too sleekly executed. It has the potential to be shocking, abrasive, perverse and somehow new and doesn’t fully capitalize. That eye-sore of an ad in the motel room—one of the film’s few witty, Lee-specific touches—risks being more memorable and affecting than the (at times) unnecessarily convoluted, heavily monologued plot that comes after it.
This is Lee doing his best Tarantino impersonation. It’s surprisingly successful on the surface, but the director’s heart isn’t in it. (The credits, for the first time in the filmmaker’s career, read “A Spike Lee Film” instead of “A Spike Lee Joint.”)There is nothing inherently wrong with the film, but perhaps not enough right with it either, not enough energy and genuineness. The viewers should feel the walls of the room closing in on them as the character does; we should feel as invigorated and hungry for life and revenge as he is when he is given back his freedom; we should crumble under the weight of the final discovery right alongside Joe. Instead, we watch his trials, triumphs and tragic resolution as if we’re still back in that room, mindlessly buttoning the TV remote.