An uninhibited Americanized update of 2005's acclaimed South Korean thriller of the same name, "Oldboy" reinvents itself every twenty or so minutes, transitioning from dark cautionary fable to ominous kidnapping drama to brutal revenge tale to increasingly lurid investigative procedural. From there it gets even darkerand eventually more tritewith a wave of twists and revelations hauntingly incendiary yet not able to hold up to close scrutiny. Director Spike Lee (2006's "Inside Man
"), working from a screenplay by Mark Protosevich (2007's "I Am Legend
"), has never been the most subtle of filmmakershis work is typically very much on the nosebut it is nevertheless a testament to his versatility that one would never guess just from watching "Oldboy" that he was behind the camera. He changes up his style to suit the material, giving it a guerilla-style, semi-hallucinatory rebelliousness that only seems to play things safe when he feels the need to spell out certain corkscrews within the plot.
Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) is an alcoholic deadbeat dad and all-around sleazebag who, late one night after drinking heavily, comes to in a locked, windowless room. Trapped with no way to escape, fed little more than Asian potstickers and vodka delivered to him in an opening at the bottom of the door, the captive Joe has no choice but to bide his time in solitary confinement as the years tick by. With nothing else to do, he begins an exercise regimen and quits drinking, preparing mentally and physically for the day when he gets back his freedom. Watching the television in his room, he learns he has become the prime suspect in his ex-wife's brutal murder, his abrupt disappearance tied to the crime. When he is finally set loose twenty years later, he only has two things on his mind: to find his now-grown daughter and to seek revenge on every last person responsible for kidnapping and framing him.
There are a great many things right about "Oldboy" and plenty of things wrong, but when the film hits its target it legitimately cooks with a special brand of threat-fueled mood and vigor. Comparing it to its much-admired forbearer is inevitable, with elements that this one improves upon and other aspects that have been altered for the worse. In every scene, protagonist Joe has been given a fuller backstory and an upshot in his personal development; as unlikable as he is in the early scenes, his gradual metamorphosis thereafter allows the viewer to better understand and sympathize with him. This version is creepier, too, with inventive additions to the narrative giving the proceedings a newfound dreamlike eeriness. Joe's run-ins with an elusive woman carrying a yellow umbrella brings an enticing additional layer to the story, while one particular imagining while he is locked up involving a clad-in-red bellhop (Cinqué Lee) whose smiling picture hangs on the wall is downright chilling. Several nervy set-pieces follow, from an elaborately choreographed, sparsely cut fight sequence to a squirm-inducing scene where Joe delivers a skin-slicing comeuppance to a cagey figure (Samuel L. Jackson) working for coolly malicious puppet master Adrian Pryce (Sharlto Copley). By making Joe's daughter a larger, more onscreen pawn in the tale, it aids in actualizing what he stands to lose once more if he is unable to find her.
For reasons unknown, however, Lee and Protosevich have seen fit to alter key details in the overall mystery which Joe is embroiled, and the changes weaken the logic of Adrian's motives. The third-act reveals are on the bumbling side, stretching logic like saltwater taffy. Joe's relationship with Marie Sebastian (Elizabeth Olsen), a troubled young social worker he literally knocks into, feels forced, her participation in the plot unable to grow beyond a gimmick. Also problematic are the brief glimpses behind the curtain of the bad guys' operation; once one discovers what's been going on, and why, it provides more unnecessary questions rather than answers. At least Sharlto Copley is memorable as Adrian, transcending with unconventional ingenuity and chilling calm that of a another villainous role (after 2013's "Elysium
") which easily could have become two-dimensional with a lesser actor in the part.
Josh Brolin (2013's "Gangster Squad
") continues to stretch in impressive ways as a performer without ever being showy about it, and his work here as Joseph Doucett is riveting. In a brief amount of time in the first act, he portrays Joe as a prickly, smarmy ass, a guy who doesn't take responsibility for his actions and doesn't realize how much the people around him despise his personality. The transformation he goes through after he is placed in an unthinkable, life-altering situation is palpably felt and wholly believablethough it should be said that aside from losing some weight and cutting his hair, Joe doesn't age whatsoever in the two full decades he is held in captivity. As Marie, the always-watchable Elizabeth Olsen (2012's "Liberal Arts
") overcomes the constraints of her convoluted character with a fetching, wounded proficiency. She is very strong, even if the way she is shoehorned into Joe's investigation is a miscalculation on the screenwriting level.
"Oldboy" is an aesthetically arresting potboiler, photographed by Sean Bobbitt (2013's "12 Years a Slave
") with a jittery immediacy that keeps one off-balance throughout (for those familiar with the original, yes, a certain octopus makes a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo). Joe's world isn't just upended, but it seldom appears as if he is in the middle of a lucid nightmare, and director Spike Lee retains this disquieting aura from beginning to end. The puzzle pieces not consistently making sense or adding up becomes a hindrance by the climax, at once too exposition-heavy and taciturn for its own good. If the film's successive missteps are frustrating, though, it is because the rest of "Oldboy" has a dangerously irresistible ambience difficult to deny or resist.