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It would be unreasonable to expect Spike Lee‘s Oldboy to deliver the disgusting thrill of Park Chan-wook‘s 2003 original, an exquisitely harrowing work even its maker hasn’t yet been able to match. But the story of a man seeking revenge after being imprisoned for many years, drawn from a Japanese manga by Garon Tsuchiya and Nobuaki Minegishi, proves durable. Fans expecting an American version to water it down will discover that, while Lee leaves some of Park’s more memorable outrages behind, he and screenwriter Mark Protosevich find one or two ways to up the taboo-testing ante, small surprises that retain the tale’s edge without pushing into the realm of exploitation. The picture will do vastly better business than Lee’s last two features, Red Hook Summer and Miracle at St. Anna, though it is too vicious to reach the broad audience that embraced Inside Man.
If Inside Man felt like Lee’s attempt to court an audience who knew little about his career, Oldboy has even fewer personal touches: If not for the obligatory put-the-actor-on-a-dolly “floating” shot and a cameo appearance by Lee’s brother Cinque Lee (an in-joke referencing his bellhop role in Jim Jarmusch‘s Mystery Train), you might not even guess he directed it. Some have noted that the credits label this “a Spike Lee film” whereas all previous pictures have been Spike Lee joints.
None of which is to say that the picture lacks Lee’s visual panache or sensitivity to his characters’ emotional states. In the scenes introducing us to Josh Brolin‘s Joe Doucett, the camera (wielded by Sean Bobbitt, who has shot all of Steve McQueen‘s features) follows woozily overhead as the boorish businessman gets drunk, staggering through Chinatown alleys after blowing an important deal.
Blacking out just after seeing a mysterious woman, Joe awakes in a jail cell that resembles a hotel room just enough to mock the idea of hospitality. He’s fed regularly through a hole in the door — a fifth of vodka is supplied to wash down each meal — but his captor never introduces himself. His only contact with the world is the room’s TV — whose news channel reports one day that Joe’s estranged wife has been brutally murdered, and he’s the presumed killer. His three-year-old daughter will be raised by strangers, believing her father not only to be the jerk he is but a murderer as well.
Brolin dives into the near-insane funk that overtakes Joe as his confinement stretches out, lasting at least four years before the turning point: Seeing his daughter in her new home on an Unsolved Mysteries-style show, he resolves to become a man worthy of her love and to somehow see her again. As the years tick by in news broadcasts — presidential inaugurations, the 9/11 attacks, “Mission Accomplished” and Katrina — he ditches his vodka rations, fills his time with exercise, and chips furtively at mortar in the bathroom, hoping to escape.
Twenty years in, just as escape seems possible, Joe is knocked out again and released bizarrely into the world. The film becomes a vengeance-driven mystery, with Joe calling on an old friend (Michael Imperioli) and a generous stranger (Elizabeth Olsen‘s Marie) to help find the man — now taunting him with anonymous calls to the phone he left in Joe’s suit — who stole 20 years and a daughter from him.
This pursuit contains all the violence of Park’s film with fewer surreal touches. (Translation: No, Brolin doesn’t eat a live octopus, as the Korean film’s Choi Min-sik does. Though he does pass one in an aquarium, giving it a nice long “Don’t I know you from somewhere?” stare.) When it comes to the story’s action centerpiece, a shamelessly hyperbolic fight in which Joe takes out dozens of attackers wielding a single claw hammer, Lee increases both the body count and the physical scale, spreading the action across three levels of a parking garage ramp. But he loses the claustrophobia that, in the first film’s hallway-set version, helped sell the ridiculous odds and make the fight unforgettable.
As the boss of this gang, Samuel L. Jackson sports a bleached mohawk and wardrobe flamboyant enough for a sci-fi film. The secretive aristocrat who hired him to imprison Joe, Sharlto Copley‘s Adrian Pryce, struggles to be as interestingly exotic. But he does have some killer plot twists up his sleeve as he puts Joe through one last, psychologically cruel ordeal.
Unlike his predecessor, who took his character to some truly terrifying places, Brolin remains recognizably human (albeit desperate, fierce and scarred) throughout the story. The performance suits Lee and Protosevich’s vision well — particularly in the end, a resolution which likely will strike many of the first film’s partisans as too gentle, but achieves an impressive bleak irony without betraying the story’s complicated emotional motivations.
Production: Vertigo Entertainment, 40 Acres and a Mule
Cast: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, Sharlto Copley, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Imperioli, Linda Emond, James Ransone, Max Casella
Director: Spike Lee
Screenwriter: Mark Protosevich
Producers: Roy Lee, Doug Davison, Nathan Kahane
Executive producers: Joe Drake, John Powers Middleton, Peter Schlessel
Director of photography: Sean Bobbitt
Production designer: Sharon Seymour
Costume designer: Ruth E. Carter
Editor: Barry Alexander Brown
Music: Roque Banos
Rated R, 103 minutes
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