Written by Mark Protosevich, Spike Lee’s thriller Oldboy is an action-packed reimagining of Chan-wook Park’s 2003 Korean film of the same name. A paranoia-laced tale of injustice, obsession, and revenge that finds Lee plumbing the dark depths of the human soul, Oldboy is replete with intricately choreographed fight sequences and shocking revelations that lead to a gut-wrenching surprise ending.
Set in 1993 in an unnamed city resembling New York, Oldboy tells the story of an unlikable advertising executive, Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin), who struggles to get ahead while paying child support to his ex-wife. After a particularly long night of boozing and misbehaving, Joe awakens to find himself imprisoned in a specially fortified motel room with only a television to keep him connected to the outside world. The TV informs him that he’s been fingered for murdering his ex-wife and that his young daughter has been adopted by strangers. Joe’s bewildering captivity lasts for 20 years, during which time he weans himself from vodka and teaches himself martial arts. He is released one day out of the blue, and vengeance is the first thing on his mind. (Well, that and learning how to use an iPhone.) Living with an old high-school friend, Chucky (Michael Imperioli), Joe develops a romantic relationship with a young nurse named Marie (Elizabeth Olsen) who helps him to first uncover the identities of his captors (Sharlto Copley and Samuel L. Jackson) and then track them down. Using his fists and a box cutter, Joe exacts some of the revenge he’d been craving, but he ultimately finds himself entangled in a situation more complex and horrifying than anything he could have imagined.
With Oldboy, Lee pays homage not only to Park’s film but to the manga that inspired it. As Joe battles hordes of baton-wielding gang members (who look to have been cast straight out of the “Thriller” music video), he is magically impervious to their blows, which bounce off him like raindrops. Joe wields a hammer like a samurai sword, cutting down all who stand in his way. Working with cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (Hunger, Shame, 12 Years a Slave), Lee renders the central fight sequence in one uninterrupted side-scrolling long shot, which evokes the graphic-novel format (as does the graininess of the film) and suggests the epic quality of Joe’s battle skills.
Brolin’s strong performance more than makes up for what seems like a serious oversight in the makeup department: between the time of Joe’s confinement and release, he does not appear to have physically aged. Yet, by lowering his voice to a growl and modifying the way he walks and moves, as well as losing a lot of weight, Brolin manages to convey the passage of time. Olsen’s nuanced and sensual performance complements Brolin’s nicely, and their palpable on-screen chemistry is integral to Oldboy’s appeal.
By remaking a film that won the Grand Prix at Cannes less than a decade earlier, Lee has undertaken a serious challenge. Less gory and thus easier to stomach than Park’s version, Lee’s film lacks the pulsating undercurrent of doom that makes Park’s Oldboy simultaneously magical and sickening. Instead, Lee brings a bit of levity and New York flavor to his Oldboy. For example, while imprisoned, Joe subsists on dumplings stuffed into Chinese takeout containers—familiar to many New Yorkers—that are slipped under his room’s steel door. The containers wink at Oldboy’s Asian origins. In the end, though, it is mostly in-jokes that distinguish Spike Lee’s Oldboy from Park’s film.
Viewers new to Oldboy will appreciate Lee’s affecting and entertaining tale of a man unjustly imprisoned. They are in for a wild, disturbing, and unpredictable ride. Fans of Park’s film—and there are many wildly loyal ones—will likely be far less impressed.