Spike Lee’s Oldboy opens with the title card “Based on the Korean Film…” as if to suggest Park Chan-wook’s 2003 thriller was distinctly Korean while the Red Hood Summer filmmaker’s version would reciprocate with a more “American” approach. Maybe Lee sees his home country as a rather banal, morose environment, because that’s the flavor of his Oldboy, a revenge drama that’s heavy on the oddities and gore, but without rhyme or reason to make it palatable. Like America’s melting pot, Lee tosses in tones of every color, over-the-top gags coupled with acts of horrific moments of violence. It’s occasionally jarring, but the cultural stew cooks too long. This is a bland movie.
Josh Brolin stars as Joe Doucett, a wheeler and dealer stricken by alcoholism and hungry for any sexual encounter he can find. If it’s 8 a.m. on a Tuesday, it’s time for vodka, hidden away in a Big Gulp. If he’s at a business meeting with a potential parter, his wife is a prime target for fraternizing. Anything goes for Joe, and it’s easy to see why someone would one day kidnap him, lock him in a motel room-like prison, and frame him for the murder/rape of his wife. He’s a scumbag in need of a wake up call and he gets one in the worst way imaginable.
These moments, taking place in 1993, are the real highlights, despite the worst kind of ridiculous drunk routine from Brolin. Lee shoots these early scenes with a gritty film that time travels us back to the era, setting up for the eventual propulsion towards 2013. Without knowing the identity of his captor, Joe remains locked up for 20 years. He’s only fed dumplings. His only view to the outside world is a television. And when he dares to make outside contact — at one point he “befriends” a mouse and her babies — the folks on the outside quickly cut him off (thank you Oldboy, for the image of plated, roast mouse).
Through montage, Lee speeds through Joe’s time in the motel room. We watch him descend into hell, then bounce back up again, all while time passes. He gives up drinking and gets himself in shape using exercise programs and kung fu movies. When he’s meditating, events like 9/11 and Katrina unfold in the background. And then two decades later, he’s thrown out of the room — and looks exactly the same. Despite all the tricks Lee has up his sleeve, Joe’s imprisonment feels like a slog, not a mental torture. Time has no meaning when it should have all the meaning.
When Joe is unleashed, Oldboy spirals into schizophrenia. The ex-prisoner has a mission: find his daughter, kill the man who put him away for 20 years, and prove his innocence. We’re supposed to see him as redemptive…“supposed to” because his first action is to beat up a football team without even a moment of hesitation. Joe hasn’t been cryogenically frozen for two decades — he’s still human and may even value life more than he has before. But kicking the butts of innocents makes little sense. Playing it for laughs, less so.
To help crack his case, Joe reconnects with an old school friend Chucky (Michael Imperioli) and finds a kindred spirit in EMT worker Marie (Elizabeth Olsen), neither of whom challenge the vengeful detective thematically or psychologically. If Lee pushed Oldboy deep into the procedural genre and flourished it with cinematic panache, these stock card characters may be more tolerable. But the movie clings to its grey palette until late in the game, when flashbacks and discoveries unveil the spoilery cap to Joe’s pursuits. The problem for Oldboy is that it’s not fun tracking the nonsensical clues — even when Brolin is plucking pieces of flesh out of sadistic prison guard Sam Jackson’s neck. Lee will punch us in the gut then quickly swing the pendulum back into leveled reality. The movie needs one direction and the filmmaker gives it eight.
The meandering script by Mark Protosevich (I Am Legend) detracts from decent performances. Brolin is gruff enough to sell a mild-mannered man transformed into a bloodthirsty beast but that task is only the first leg of the race. He’s one note throughout Oldboy because that’s what it necessitates. Olsen, on the other hand, could eventually play Clarice in an (inevitable?) Silence of the Lambs reboot. She’s empathetic of Joe while being sharp during the sleuthing scenes. Her character breaks past the monotony of the story. And then there’s Sharlto Coplay, an integral part of Joe’s past. To say more would ruin the reveals, but for whatever reason, the District 9 actor decided to play his role like Bill Hader playing Vincent Price on Saturday Night Live. He’s in a completely different movie, and it’s hard to decide if that version would be more fun.
There are genuinely startling moments in Oldboy, when humanity is dredged up to reveal its most awful side in an explosion of blood and catastrophe. But it’s padded with layers of stale drama. A major sequence where Joe singlehandedly annihilates a pack of thugs should either be frightening or cheer-worthy. In Lee’s film, it feels generic and lifeless. The Korean Oldboy may have foreshadowed an ideal “American” Oldboy for the legendary filmmaker, but in this case, we simply get Oldboy. Straightforward, simple, and relentless.
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