Cast: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, Sharlto Copley, Michael Imperioli, Pom Klementieff, James Ransone, Max Casella, and Samuel L. Jackson
Written By: Mark Protosevich
Directed By: Spike Lee
Just in time for the holidays comes one of the darkest and most depraved films to ever be released over Thanksgiving weekend. Oldboy is a revenge fantasy which works as the most effective of action-thrillers – one that is mysterious and story driven. The twist heavy film will keep you guessing up until the final nefarious reveal, that is unless you’ve already seen the 2003 Korean version of which the film is based on. This American remake will be substantially more compelling to those unfamiliar with the original, however there are enough alterations integrated into the plot (including the ending) which should still keep fans of the first film in suspense.
Josh Brolin stars as Joe Doucett, an alcoholic advertising executive and consummate asshole. Both Joe’s work and family life are unraveling around him due to his penchant for neglecting both obligations in favor of hitting the bottle. After simultaneously blowing the biggest deal of his career and missing his 3-year-old daughters birthday party, Joe wakes up to find himself imprisoned in a seedy motel room with no way out and no explanation for his captivity. Joe spends 20 years in this enclosure without any contact to the outside world until one day when he is inexplicably set free. Joe embarks on a mission to find the ones responsible for his incarceration only to discover that the real question isn’t why he was locked up, but why he was let go.
Director Spike Lee is best known for his urban independent dramas as opposed to this type of action movie fare, but as with the bank robbing suspenser Inside Man, he proves to be a formidable force orchestrating a crime thriller. With the help of an ominous musical score, there are moments throughout this film which feel like something out of a Hitchcock movie. The man on a mission/man on the run aspects of the film evoke The Man Who Knew Too Much and North By Northwest, only if those Hitchcock classics contained shocking scenes of brutality and torture like something out of a Saw movie.
One of the funnier sequences of the film features Joe trying to track down the Chinese restaurant from which he had been delivered dumplings for the last 20 years. All Joe knows is that “Dragon” is featured in the restaurant’s name and so he visits every Chinese joint in town with such a moniker. No matter how similar Chinese dumplings may be, you don’t forget the specific taste of a food consumed at every dinner for 20 years. That the dumplings will eventually lead him to the villain’s hideout is one of many examples of the film’s clever use of clues and plot devices to further the story.
Elizabeth Olsen gives a strong performance as Marie Sebastian, a young medical social worker with a shady past of her own who takes in the broken down Joe after his release. Olsen is a strong female protagonist with a meatier role than the sidelined women of an action-thriller typically get. While Brolin and Olsen give more restrained and straightforward performances, it’s the baddies as played by Samuel L. Jackson and Sharlto Copley who stand out. Both men give eccentric and campy performances that almost feel like they belong in a different movie, however their outlandish personas add quite nicely to the bizarreness of it all. Jackson, sporting a yellow mohawk, appears to be having more fun as the manager of the secret prison over any recent role outside of a Quentin Tarantino movie. Copley comes off like he’s satirizing a villain from a James Bond movie and that’s meant as a compliment.
Though purists of Chan-wook Park’s version may vehemently disagree, this remake is mostly an improvement over the original. It may be somewhat dumbed down in its over-explanation of plot points, but on the whole this is a more polished, entertaining and dare I say crowd-pleasing take on the Oldboy concept. Scenes which are recreated from the original version are better staged this time around and that includes the infamous hammer scene. Sure, watching Josh Brolin with only a claw hammer at his disposable rip through a hallway full of bad guys whom are armed with baseball bats and samurai swords is perposterous, but so what? Lee had the difficult task of reimagining the most memorable sequence from the original and he managed to pull it off – the single-take battle scene is both beautifully shot and electrifyingly choreographed.
In a lot of ways Oldboy is a silly guilty pleasure of a movie but at least it’s one that has a developing narrative to hold your interest as opposed to scene after scene of mindless action sequences. For example, something like Taken (another film focused on a father’s mission to save his daughter) is a whole lot of fun, but there’s no one in the audience who doesn’t already know how the movie will end even as the opening credits roll. You will not be prepared for the ending of this film (unless you’ve seen the original) and once it’s revealed you might not be very happy about it, but you can’t say that you saw it coming. Oldboy is a twisted, provocative and surreal nightmare of a movie which enthusiasts of the macabre will eat up like our good ol’ boy eats dumplings.