Mark’s Movies: Oldboy

By on December 7, 2013

And the “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” memorial award for the Most Feel-Bad Movie of the holiday season goes to… “Oldboy”! As should come to no surprise to anyone who’s seen the completely bent original Korean flick of the same name, this is one messed-up movie. Those worried that director Spike Lee, working WAY outside of his comfort zone, would shy away from some of the more outré material in justly-celebrated auteur Chan-wook Park’s insane film and/or the manga upon which it is based needn’t have, because this is far and away the craziest thing you’ll likely to see this December, if indeed anyone sees it at all. Let’s just say it doesn’t exactly scream Christmas release.

That said, it’s undeniably Lee’s best non-documentary work in ages, at least since the underrated “Inside Man,” back in 2006, but possibly since 2002’s superlative “The 25th Hour,” which in certain ways it reminded me of. “Oldboy” shares the same gritty tone and look of that latter film, as well as a nicely-compressed framing, which is key for a film that spans over twenty years. It’s certainly never boring, and even if you’ve seen the original, it’s fascinating trying to figure out where Lee is going with all of this.

The set-up is deceptively simple: a drunken sleazeball of a man, ad exec Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) is out on a bender after blowing a key deal with his company when he stupidly hits on the wife of the guy (Lance Reddick, of “Fringe” and “Lost” fame) he’s trying to woo for his business. After passing out/being knocked out shortly after seeing an Asian woman with a yellow umbrella, he wakes up in what appears to be a hotel room, but is actually a prison in disguise. There, he spends the next twenty years, with no idea why he’s there in the first place.

It’s a grabber of a premise, and just as Doucett becomes obsessed with finding out why he’s there and who put him there in the first place, so do we become fascinated with the same. Doucett assembles a list of potential culprits, as well as biding his time writing letters to his daughter, trying to explain what happened, especially after he sees a report on a news program that alleges that he killed his ex-wife, leaving her without any family to speak of and a murderer for a father. (While unconscious, whoever put him there takes various hair samples and the like to frame him for the murder.)

Eventually, he kicks the booze his captor provides for him every day, gets into shape with the aid of an exercise show, and even learns martial arts from the movies he watches on the television provided for him, his only outlet into the world outside. Twenty years later, he is inexplicably released, and discovers that the culprit has also kidnapped his daughter and given Doucett a limited amount of time to rescue her, or he/she/they will kill her. All he has to do is figure out who is behind all this and why. Needless to say, this is easier said than done.

Helping him is old pal Chucky (Lee regular and former “Sopranos” cast member Michael Imperioli) and a nurse, Marie (Elizabeth Olsen), who acquaint Doucett with the wonderful new world of laptops, cell phones, and so forth. Amongst the bad guys Doucett tangles with are “The Stranger” (Sharlto Copley, of “”Elysium” and “District 9” fame) and Chaney (another Lee regular, Samuel L. Jackson), who runs the place Doucett was held captive in. If you can believe it, things get even weirder.

This is edgy, exciting stuff, and if not even remotely appropriate for the holiday season, hey, at least it’s not boring. Besides, not everyone wants to see the latest animated Disney flick or Medea Christmas movie. I don’t know what it’s chances are for box office success, but for what it’s worth, it’s one of Lee’s most engaging movies to date, with a knockout cast and some superlative cinematography by Sean Bobbitt that perfectly and hypnotically sucks the viewer into Doucett’s personal hell and almost immediately into the story at hand.

Brolin wholly inhabits his character to the extent that you never have any trouble buying into it- nor have any problem buying that he’s undoubtedly ticked off more than a few people over the years. Olsen makes a fine, sexy foil as a fellow lost soul, herself a recovering addict still trying to keep her head above water. And who doesn’t like to see Jackson in full-on crazy mode?

There’s some fantastic sequences lifted straight from the original film, including a bravura martial arts fest in which Doucett takes on a small army of foes in the building in which he was imprisoned for all those years. The violence is abrupt and gruesome, showing that, for all his complaints about fellow director Quentin Tarantino, Lee’s learned a thing or two from watching his stuff. It’s also got a steamy sex scene from the two leads, for all you Brolin and Olsen fans- trust me, you get quite the eyeful of both over the course of this movie.

So, all in all, this is everything you could ask for in a remake of the original, save perhaps the notorious octopus scene, which Lee slyly nods to in the scene in which it occurs in the original. But that’s a small complaint. Everything else is present and accounted for, and though the script by Mark Protosevich wisely tweaks the material so that it won’t be a complete retread of the original (and thus, still pack a punch for those who have already seen it), it retains everything memorable about the source material at hand.

It may not exactly scream Christmas time viewing, but for those looking for a left-of-center alternative to the holiday blitz, this should do the trick nicely. Longtime Lee fans might not know quite what to make of it, but this fan gives it a strong B+. You might lose your dumplings when it gets to the big twist at the end, but it’s nothing if not original!

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About Mark Trammell

Mark Trammell is the resident entertainment critic at UAB, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where he is also a Graduate Student and does a vid-cast movie review show. He is a life-long fan of films and has a pretty whacked-out, all-over-the-place movie collection that would give most sane people pause. He loves horror movies and Disney flicks and isn't entirely sure there is a difference. He one day hopes to put his money where his mouth is and inflict his own perverse vision on society, entirely so that he can tell people who ask: "If you think you can do better, why don't you make a movie yourself?" to shut up.
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