‘Oldboy’: Hammer it home

December 2, 2013


I’ve been a fan of Spike Lee – if not of all of his movies – for 25 years.

And I’ve found that, more often than not, he’s at his best when he’s directing someone else’s material – or someone else’s story.

It was true of “The 25th Hour,” “Malcolm X” and “Inside Man.” And it’s absolutely true of “Oldboy,” his remake of the remarkable film by Korean director Chan-wook Park.

(Still, you’d think that Spike would have been a little more generous in the opening credits, which nod to the original film only by saying “Based on the Korean film ‘Oldboy,’ as though Park was not even part of the equation.)

Filmed in and around New Orleans, “Oldboy” stars Josh Brolin as Joe Doucett, an advertising guy with a drinking problem and a bad divorce. He’s apparently a problem womanizer because, as the film kicks in, he’s pitching a campaign to a client, then blowing the deal by coming on to the client’s wife when the guy goes to the restroom. Joe starts drinking and winds up in a blackout drunk in front of a friend’s bar.

When he comes to, he’s in a hotel room. But there’s no phone, no window – and no knob on the door. There’s a slot at the bottom of the door, through which his food is passed on a tray. And he’s got a TV that seems to play mostly exercise videos and martial-arts films.

There, he is imprisoned for years, occasionally sinking into a suicidal despair that leads him to try to take his own life. At that point, the room is filled with knock-out gas, his wounds are bound and, for good measure, his beard and head are shaved.

When he’s not drinking the bottle of vodka that comes as part of each meal, he passes the time writing letters to the daughter who was 3 when Joe was snatched. Eventually, she is his inspiration to quit drinking. He starts working out and teaches himself martial arts by watching TV; he even starts planning for his own escape.

But before he can free himself, he wakes up in a steamer trunk, in the middle of an open field. He’s been prisoner for 20 years (the film starts in 1993) – and now he wants some payback. But who is he looking for? Why was he taken? And why has he been released?

His search takes him all over town, where he applies the martial arts he’s learned from TV against anyone who gets in his way. He uses whatever weapon is at hand, at one point fighting his way through a crowd of thugs with only a hammer at his disposal. Even a butcher knife in the back can’t stop him – only slow him down.

He eventually is aided by a recovering drug addict named Maria (Elizabeth Olsen), a young woman who works with the homeless. She becomes part of his quest, though she’s not sure why she’s helping him, only that she’s drawn to his story.

Lee and cinematographer Sean Bobbit keep things both simple and stylized, using odd or canted angles to throw the viewer off-balance. But the writing in Mark Protosevich’s script is clear, concise and to the point. Lee serves the story, rather than letting it get lost in style.

Brolin is a handsome movie star who, here, closes his face like a fist. In the early going, when he smiles and glad-hands, he captures the falsity, the desperation for a drink masked behind his bravado. It’s all a bluff – but he won’t even listen to those who try to call him on it.

As he progresses, Brolin coils tighter and tighter, a man on a mission of vengeance. He’s fired by a fierceness, along with the pain of knowing that, to some degree, he is the creator of his own situation.

Olsen adds to a growing and impressive acting resume as the young woman who helps him. Michael Imperioli brings crumpled nobility as a long-time friend of Joe’s. Samuel L. Jackson – completely with golden Mohawk and lip ring – makes a wonderfully craven henchman.

Sharlto Copley, as the mysterious string-puller, goes over the top with a too-fey affectation. As stylized as the film is, the acting is mostly realistic – and so Copley strikes the film’s only false note.

Protosevich reworks the original ending and, as a result, the motivation for all of this seems more and more implausible. But the events themselves are so ballistically exciting, so painful and shocking, that most of that can be set aside while you absorb punch after punch from the film.

“Oldboy” is obviously not for everyone, in the same way that Park’s films aren’t. But if you’ve got a taste for this kind of brutal, in-your-face story-telling, Lee delivers.

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