Movies have taught us how to be tough and tender, how to kiss and smoke and stand up for what's right. Even more invaluably, however, they have given us a template for what to do if we find ourselves inexplicably imprisoned in a nondescript hotel room for 20 years: Train hard, grab a hammer, find the filthy rich criminal mastermind who threw you in there, and dish out some serious payback.
That's the lesson the South Korean thriller Oldboy (2003) was kind enough to impart, and we remain all the better for it. One of the more baroquely brutal works to come out of the Asia Extreme wave, Park Chan-Wook's revenger's story (based on a manga by Nobuaki Minegishi) took elements of Jacobean tragedy and Tinseltown action-flick excess, shoved it all into a Freudian sausage-skin and set the temperature to boil-over. Already a known commodity in his native country, charismatic star Choi Min-Sik saw his international-star status go up overnight. When the film played the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, jury head Quentin Tarantino helped steer this violent, irony-tinged opus towards the Grand Prix award; more importantly, the motormouthed auteur couldn't stop raving about it to the press. The movie was virtually guaranteed pulp-fanboy cult status.
An Americanized remake (mea culpa, "reinterpretation") was equally inevitable, a no-brainer whose overall relevance — "Is this really necessary?" — one wouldn't question any more than asking whether you actually do want fries to go with that five-dollar shake. So if we have to suffer through a new Oldboy, let it be one starring Josh Brolin and directed by Spike Lee. The former, an actor blessed with Cro-Mag handsomeness and a college-wrestler's build, is the kind of guy you could believe as both a broken man and someone with a single-minded desire to rip people apart. (Bruised masculinity becomes him.) The second remains one of the most exciting, if erratic, American filmmakers of the past two decades. We are in good hands here, even if said hands are holding a bloodied blunt instrument, poised to strike our skulls.
The song remains the same: A middle-aged businessman, played by Brolin, spends his days sipping the sauce out of soda cups, blowing off his kid's birthday party and screwing up corporate deals by hitting on a potential partner's girlfriend at dinner. Our practitioner of Alpha Douchebaggery stumbles drunkenly into the night, only to awaken in a hotel room with no exit. Food and vodka are passed into his Art Deco cell daily. (A portrait of a bellboy that resembles Michael Ray Charles' deconstructions of early 20th century racist-caricature art adorns the walls — a nice Lee touch.)
Decades pass. Guilt and despair turn to rage. Our hero whips himself into MMA-fighter shape. Then one day, he finds himself unceremoniously dumped back into the outside world, where he meets a young woman (Elisabeth Olsen) who takes pity on him and gives him shelter. It's time to get some answers; also, to prepare a dish best served cold.
The 2003 version rightfully confirmed Park as one of the most ghoulishly stylish (or stylishly ghoulish) filmmakers to come out of South Korea in eons, and Lee gleefully recycles jaw-dropping, skin-crawling images from the original: a bank of monitors displaying dozens of hotel "tenants," a man in a black suit emerging from a trunk in a green field. The American redo makes only a sly momentary nod to Oldboy's second most notorious scene, in which Choi eats a live octopus before our eyes. But it wisely restages the first: a knockdown battle between our hammer-wielding antihero and dozens of men in a hallway, done in a single long tracking shot. Lee's movie breaks it into two shots (in an interview with The New York Times, the filmmaker claims he did a single-shot take but alludes to behind-the-scenes studio shenanigans) yet the visceral thrill remains intact; thanks to talent, the second time around does not mean this is a second-hand rush.
There are a few fresh additions, notably an expansion of the hotel owner's part in order to accommodate Samuel L. Jackson; given that he's waltzing around with a dyed-yellow Mohawk, one can assume he's just come from auditioning for a Fishbone cover band. Otherwise, Oldboy 2.0 retains the basic plot points, non-seafood culinary obsessions (dumpling detective work!), a Bond-villain-lite bad guy that District 9's Sharlto Copley does nothing with and the major twist-a-roo reveals, the latter of which will not be spoiled here. Brace yourself.
What we can say is that at its core, the new movie remains the world's most elaborate anti-gossip PSA ever constructed, a theater-of-pain Rube Goldberg contraption that Lee sets up to go off without a hitch — a feat impressive in and of itself. We would never want to lose the Bed-Stuy Do-or-Die brawler's singular voice, especially since American filmmaking needs a Spike Lee now more than ever. But Inside Man (2006) showed that he could, in fact, inject work-for-hire with the same fire and fury that he bestows upon his personal projects. If Oldboy is any indication, Lee may want to consider taking journeyman gigs more often. This is not a Spike Lee joint. This is, however, one helluva ballsy, batshit studio movie, directed with panache and flawless technique. We'll take it.