A clockwork hammer of a movie, Chan-wook Park’s 2003 Oldboy drove the wedge that opened the world to the New Korean cinema, and it left a bruise: The story of a man inexplicably imprisoned and tormented for 15 years before being set free, it was a tale of revenge told in boldly bloody, shamelessly perverse, almost operatic terms. If Korean movies since have been characterized by their artfully extreme approach to violence and retribution, American movies have ratcheted the stakes up in kind, as Spike Lee’s strikingly effective remake of Park’s razor-edged calling card makes clear.
In place of Park’s ill-fated hero (a man who wakes up in a David Lynch-like prison-hotel after an epic bender on his daughter’s birthday), Lee’s version introduces Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin), an obnoxiously alcoholic ad man who comes to in a similarly dingy room after blacking out one night in 1993. There he will spend 20 years, watching history roll by on the TV, gradually detoxing from the daily bottles of vodka he’s supplied, learning to fight from old kung fu movies, coming to terms with the fact he’s accused of murdering his wife, and daily nursing the same smouldering question: Who put him here and why? Thus, when he is finally sprung – from an old steamer chest left surrealistically in an open field – he’s nurtured one hell of a lot of world-class resentment. Count on it: There will be blood.
The smart thing about Lee’s resparking of Park’s original is that it forgoes much of the former’s more extravagant forays into delusionary first-person psychotrauma in favour of a leaner, more objective tale of a man so poisoned by revenge he’s traded one solitary-confinement prison for another. Lee’s is more of a hard-edged, hammer-and-nail noir than Park’s existential horror, and it’s far less concerned with the internal state of Joe’s mind than the external havoc it creates. When Joe catches up with the guy – Samuel L. Jackson, sporting a ridiculous canary-yellow mohawk – who monitored his daily ordeal at the Gulag Ramada, he ties him up and – grinning – proceeds to cut precise perforations in the man’s neck: the easier to pull his head off if the right answers aren’t promptly forthcoming.
Lee’s Oldboy is as much a grim reflection on the recently revitalized American tradition of righteous vengeance – the lifeblood of the Hollywood western, crime movie and post-seventies horror flick – as an indulgence of it. As Joe makes his way closer to the source of his torment, along the way picking up a sympathetic young nurse (Elizabeth Olsen) and laying ever-increasingly ugly forms of waste, the movie surgically splits our affinities: partly vicariously loving watching the wronged man get his, partly reasonably wondering if maybe the man with the hammer isn’t really somebody our thumbs should be springing up for.
As Joe, the glowering Brolin brings a quality of blunt but tortured macho bravado to the role that channels Lee Marvin – whose similarly payback-driven appearance in 1967’s Point Blank is a useful point of reference here – by way of the actor’s own previous incarnation, in Oliver Stone’s W., as the most righteously revenge-driven president in American history. Moreover, as shot by the gifted Sean Bobbitt (The Place Beyond the Pines, 12 Years a Slave), Lee’s Oldboy has the slightly frayed look of something at once bold and delicate, a vintage prize-fight poster about to roll up and blow away.
If Park’s Oldboy ended on a note of perversity so alarming it rang in your ears long after the movie ended, Lee’s finds a resolution perhaps even more disturbing, but fully in keeping with the remake’s overriding concern with violence as a corrosively self-reproducing force of pain and pointlessness.
Lee has not only made a perfectly worthy remake of an already perfectly worthy movie, he has Americanized it as a pop parable for the early 21st century. Considering that the desire for revenge has motivated so much imperial action, political rhetoric and movie entertainment in the years since September, 2001, Lee’s movie is about both the seductive power and self-cannibalizing horror of that motivation, how it always brings you right back to the very cell you never really left.