Writing about noir stalwart Robert Ryan, critic David Thomson commented that just as some men grind their teeth, some men could be said to grind their eyes. Spike Lee's crazed, delightfully sick remake of Park Chan-wook's 2003 shocker Oldboy has Josh Brolin grinding his eyes impressively as he goes on the customary blood-soaked trail of vengeance. Give or take Michael Shannon, there may not have been an actor with such a clenched fist-like face since Ryan himself.
Josh Brolin's Joe Doucett (there ought to be an 'h' in his name) is an advertising swine of the early 1990s. He's the kind of man you can count on to ruin an advertising presentation by groping the client's wife, to insult his 3-year-old child, to stagger down the streets baying for more vodka, and to end up collapsing and puking all over his suit. Hardly anyone misses him when he vanishes: Joe wakes up in what looks like the interior of the fifth worst hotel in Terre Haute. His surroundings include a set of aged Encyclopedia Britannicas on a shelf buckling under the weight of the books, and an ever-replenished drawer full of white Navy-surplus skivvies. On one wall is a too-large poster of a grimacing bellboy (it's the director's brother Cinque Lee, sort of reprising his crimson-liveried role in Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train). Here Joe will be imprisoned for 20 years. On the TV broadcasts, Joe learns his wife has been brutally murdered, and that he is the prime suspect.
With crafty distortion and all due horror, Lee sprints through the years of the ordeal—the madness, the suicide attempt, the resignation. A grisly variation on the Mr. Jingles bit in The Green Mile is cut with such dispatch and harshness that we stay in the movie's mood of ruthlessness, instead of having a big sad about it. Eventually, Joe decides to make time serve him: learning from the endless kung-fu movies and exercise programs, he bulks up with muscle. Without warning, he's released. It doesn't bear explaining how he picks up a partner—a physician or social worker or something played by the astoundingly good-looking Elizabeth Olsen. But Joe does have a lead—he gets taunting messages from an "Invisible Man" (Sharlto Copley of District 9) on a cellphone he can't get used to: "What happened to all the payphones?" he snarls. The phantom caller leads Joe in the direction of his daughter, who is in peril.
I respect Park's original, but one viewing was enough—this, however, is made with drive and the good-kind of bad-taste: the amazing hammer fight is restaged and doubled (two floors this time); good to have just a nod to Park's infamous octopus-geeking scene, instead of a reprise. The plot makes about the same lack of sense as Park's original: there's a left-field reason for this Poe-like act of imprisonment, though the title provides a clue, if you know your British slang.
Lee, a Lumet-like director, is quite capable of first-rate noir, such as Inside Man and his brilliant The 25th Hour. Strange, but the Lee who discomfited the hell out of white America for so many years doesn't seem to be present. And if you were idiotically didactic, you could shame the director for a scene of a black man tortured for our amusement. That happens when Doucet gets his hands on his jailor—he's credited as "Chaney," played by Samuel L. Jackson with a bleached Mohawk and a gold lip cuff. (Wouldn't it be great to be looking over Samuel L.'s shoulder as he opened up his wardrobe: "What will I wear to work today?") This is Samuel L., Lord of Men, we're talking about—considering Samuel L. as anyone's victim is as dumb as considering him over the top. Samuel L. is never over the top. The top bows with respect.
When the going gets bad, the audience wants something decadent. Lee's sensibility implicitly acknowledges the evil of the times in this pop Jacobean drama of the double-edge of guilt and remorse. Rather than an unnecessary remake for those too dumb to read the English subtitles, Oldboy is a cruel, rapid entertainment bristling with surprises.Wednesday
R; 104 MIN