By Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
4:27 PM EST, November 26, 2013
Brace yourself. Spike Lee has gone all Quentin Tarantino on us.
In re-imagining Park Chan-wook's mysterious thriller "Oldboy," Lee embraces the extremes of Japanese manga tradition with a vengeance. The graphic brutality, the warped sexuality, the disconcerting twists on revenge and redemption seem completely out of character for the filmmaker behind such seminal work as "She's Gotta Have It" and "Malcolm X." Yet that is precisely what makes this jagged film from a director usually bound up in social issues so interesting to consider.
Lee shifts Park's 2004 Cannes Grand Prix winner from South Korea to some indiscriminate American city, though the setting is no less grim. Josh Brolin stars as Joe Doucett, the alcoholic brawler kidnapped and held for reasons unknown in a clandestine private prison for 20 years. Michael Imperioli bookends that prison term as best friend Chucky, the last person to see Joe before he disappears and the first one to get a knock on his door when Joe is freed.
Sharlto Copley emerges slowly as the enigmatic stranger who holds the clues to Joe's imprisonment. Elizabeth Olsen is Marie, a softhearted social worker and complicating factor. She tries to help Joe reclaim his equilibrium when he's suddenly released back into the world.
The bones of the new film are similar to Park's — a man enduring the punishment long before figuring out the crime. But screenwriter Mark Protosevich goes back to the original graphic novel by Garon Tsuchiya and Nobuaki Minegishi, expanding and retracting their vision with mixed results. The notorious Chinese dumplings Joe is fed each day return, but the story ends in a very different, equally unsettling and not as satisfying, place.
The specifics, though, are not where the new "Oldboy" separates itself. It is the change in texture that is significant and distinctively Lee's. It makes for a film that is less allegorical, more direct in examining Joe's humanity as imprisonment reduces him to pure animal instinct and a partly repentant man. The very literalness of Lee's approach makes for difficult watching, with none of the fantasy escapism or hyper-realized irony so often found in the genre.
The central set piece for Brolin is Joe's time in a bizarre hotel-like cell. There are no windows. There is a haunting painting of a black man with unblinking eyes, a menacing smile and what looks to be a bellhop's red uniform. A TV set transmits a highly selective lineup of programming. It is there Joe learns he's been framed for the murder of his wife. Samuel L. Jackson is the chief watcher, the sadist — also dressed in red — sitting in front of a huge bank of screens that monitor the inmates.
Brolin is always at his best in bleaker roles. Something about the anger and pain that shadows his eyes creates indelible characters — his Vietnam vet in "No Country for Old Men," his outlaw on the run in "True Grit" and his Oscar-nominated turn as a homophobic killer in "Milk" among the more notable. But Joe requires a multi-layered madness that Brolin brings to disturbing life.
By the time Joe is released, we have been well prepared for the revenge to come, reading between the lines of the letters he's written his daughter, the physical tests he's put himself through. There is a classic face-off between the former prisoner and an endless succession of guards. It involves a hammer, many metal pipes, wooden sticks and lots of intricate martial arts choreography.
The brutality and the blows are as endless as the guards. Never have I wished for a gun to find its way into someone's hand more.
The film may be driven by action, but the plot turns on relationships. Beyond Joe's self-examination, the most critical are Olsen's Marie and Copley's stranger.
The earthy, unconditional love Olsen brings to Marie becomes a grounding force as Joe exacts revenge and unravels the mystery. Since her 2011 breakthrough in "Martha Marcy May Marlene," the actress has been doing very good work, but around the edges, and that is the case here.
Copley, best known as the government agent in "District 9," proves to be a solid villain. The South African actor makes the stranger almost otherworldly as he slowly unhinges Joe's demons, and a few of his own.
This is far from Lee's best work — there are ways in which logic completely fails and the movie becomes unintentionally absurd. But the stagnant feeling that was creeping into some of the director's more recent socially-centric work is gone.
"Oldboy" suggests a filmmaker doing almost as much soul-searching as the main character. There is a brashness in the risks taken, the very imperfections revealing an artist finding new inspiration. For Lee, this weird, brutal film seems to have freed him.
MPAA rating: R for strong brutal violence, disturbing images, some graphic sexuality and nudity, and language
Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes
Playing: In select theaters
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