A drunken ad man on a downward career spiral, Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) is an obnoxious choice for a hero, as demonstrated in the opening scenes of Spike Lee's Oldboy. He is given to sneaking vodka into his soft drinks. He is behind on his child-support payments. He blows an important ad deal by coming on to the girlfriend of his client.
As unpleasant as he is, he doesn't appear to be deserving of 20 years of solitary confinement.
But that's precisely what he gets after waking up from a drunken stupor -- take note, Rob Ford -- to find himself in a grungy hotel room that locks only from the outside.
Even on his own, Joe's traumas continue. On his room's TV set, he learns he has been accused of the brutal murder of his wife. His daughter is now an orphan. He is a wanted man.
By the time 20 years pass, Joe has managed to kick the alcohol habit (enabled by his captors). He gets fit from exercise shows and learns martial arts from watching old kung fu movies on TV. Fit for battle, he is, as inexplicably as he was imprisoned, suddenly set free with a wallet full of cash, an iPhone and a powerful thirst for vengeance.
But revenge does not come easy. On that path, he encounters his sadistic jailkeeper (Samuel L. Jackson's first Lee movie since Jungle Fever), a sympathetic nurse (Elizabeth Olsen) with her own troubled past and a mysterious, effete billionaire (Sharlto Copley) who offers the key to Joe's brutal confinement, even as he threatens the life of Joe's now-grown daughter Mia (Elvy Yost).
Spike Lee directs this remake of Chan-wook Park's Korean original from 2003, and the good news is that it is an apt translation courtesy of screenwriter Mark Protosevich. It lacks Park's delirious inspiration and originality: It pays sly homage to the notorious octopus scene of the original film, but doesn't go there. On the other hand, it does a pretty excellent reproduction of the one-take tour de force scene in which our anti-hero defends himself from a horde of henchmen... with a hammer.
Mostly, it registers as an intelligent variation of the revenge movie, a staple of American cinema since the days cowboy heroes were played by actual cowboys.
Joe may feel the righteous wrath of, say, Charles Bronson's vigilant hero in Death Wish, but he is not at all discriminating in meting out his violence: His initial victims are members of a college sports team who come to the defence of a woman they believe Joe is molesting. And as his journey leads to a fateful conclusion, he gets a pretty harsh lesson that vengeance is a two-way street.
Josh Brolin attacks the role with grim gravitas: He is not here to be liked, and he knows it. Thus he embraces the good bad-guy character with the hard edges intact. (One sees that Brolin, not Jason Statham, should have been cast as that singular American anti-hero in Parker... if that movie had been a worthy translation of Donald Westlake's source material... which it wasn't.)
Elizabeth Olsen again shows herself to be a formidable young actress, matching Brolin's ferocious/melancholic presence scene for scene. Of all the cast, only Sharlto Copley is significantly miscast as Joe's fey tormentor.
In the wildly variant career of Spike Lee, this constitutes a positive entry in his career ledger, his best dramatic film since Inside Man.