3.5 stars
Movie Review By 
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Oldboy 2013 poster

The neat trick of Spike Lee's "Oldboy"--a reinterpretation of the original Korean movie, itself based on Japanese comics called "manga"--is how fresh it plays. It's all in the seasoning.

Chan-wook Park's cult favorite from a decade ago was a cold, tense, methodical masterpiece of revenge. Spike Lee's is a spicy New Orleans gumbo of a thriller: pulpy, taut, not without humor, wound-up with energy.

The plot details are similar. Josh Brolin is Joe Doucett, an ad exec in an unnamed metropolis, circa 1993--though this was filmed in and around New Orleans. He's estranged from his wife and 3 yr-old daughter due to a life of drunken debauchery and douchebaggery. After leaving the bar one night, he awakens in a windowless motel room that feels seedy even if it lacks dirty pay-per-view movies.

There is a bible and a change of clothes in the dresser drawer, but no phone and an impenetrable door with only a slit at the bottom through which meals and vodka enter. On the television set a disturbing news story reveals that Joe's wife has been murdered and that he is the main suspect, on the lam.

A routine develops: every day the same meal of Chinese dumplings (which Joe hates) arrive at the same time, he gets drunk, and a funky mist fills the room putting him to sleep until days turn into weeks, months, years.

What is this place? Why is Joe there? Who did this to him? When another news story reveals his daughter entering womanhood and she speaks of wanting to understand her father, Joe decides to change. He gives up the booze, starts working out, and pens letters to her hoping for the
possibility of redemption.

Confined for 20 years and then just as suddenly released, Joe crawls out of a suitcase trunk in the middle of an open field, not the same man he was going in. In shape and seething with rage, he determines to exact revenge on his captor.

If Chan-wook Park's movie played like a psychological horror, this version is a hard-boiled thriller inside a fever dream. Helping Joe are Chuck, a bar owner friend from the old days played by Michael Imperioli, and Marie, a kind, open-faced social worker immediately drawn to him. She's played by Elizabeth Olsen in her best work since "Martha Marcy May Marlene". She tends to Joe's wounds, reads his letters while he's asleep, understands who he was, who he is now and why he's doing what he's doing. Maybe she's the type who is attracted to birds with broken wings, but even so, her empathy both humbles and frightens him, his trust having been destroyed by years of solitary confinement.

The middle of the picture sizzles with Joe trying dumplings at every Chinese restaurant around until he fills his mouth one day with the ones that taste like that specific kind of hate he's been cultivating for his jailor. Why does he fill his mouth with them even though he hates them? Because I think it multiplies his rage in an act of gluttonous sense memory.

Samuel L. Jackson is riveting in his few scenes as the mohawked head of security at the private hotel-facility that had been housing Joe all those years. These sequences are punctuated with brutal torture and violence, as a hammer-wielding Joe takes on all the goons in the place in a cartoonishly choreographed sequence that reminded me of Michael Jackson's "Bad" video from the late 80's. I think that's the movie's first wink to us not to take it as seriously as the original.

Josh Brolin charges through this movie with the full force of his being, a man so consumed with his need for revenge that he is blinded to a larger tragedy awaiting him the closer he gets to the mysterious man who jailed him, played by the snaky Sharlto Copley (Elysium) as a man with deeper, darker motivations of his own.

"Oldboy" thrums with focused energy and lust towards its inevitable payoff, which crawled under my skin all over again. If the final couple of minutes are not as powerful as the original, I can forgive this movie that much because it had carved out its own unique personality throughout, winding me up and arresting my attention.

Spike Lee seems a curious choice for this material. He doesn't make twisted genre movies for adults; he makes serious dramatic movies for them. But if there is a link to his body of work here, it's in the way he is able to paint in broad strokes the serious thematic elements of punishment, revenge, guilt, forgiveness, and redemption. They're the undercurrents of the entire picture and I think they make Lee the right choice for this by the end, since in lesser hands this would have been just another revenge flick with bursts of violence that are only meant to shock us. The violence here is part of a whole and grows out of the movie's themes and its characters' intentions. I think that's why this kind of violence can really affect people personally. When Brolin wields his hammer, we really feel it, whereas we're usually conditioned in North America to accept the kind of hammering that Thor does, which is inconsequential and totally forgettable.

Blood spattered, tightly wound, and superbly acted, this is Spike Lee in top form, revealing his fun side for a change as he pulls us along with all his confidence and skill in what is, unlikely as it may sound, his most purely entertaining movie.

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