Spike Lee's remake of Oldboy is every bit as brutal as the 2003 South Korean cult film on which it's modeled. Lee's movie retains the carefully muted color design of director Park Chan-wook's original; and while it elides a few of Park's most startling scenes (there's no hammer dentistry here, and no octopuses are eaten alive), Lee replaces them with some grisly inventions of his own. The story, inventively adjusted by screenwriter Mark Protosevich, remains a very nasty piece of work.
Josh Brolin stars as Joe Doucett, an alcoholic ad man in an unnamed city (the movie was shot in New Orleans). Doucett passes out in the street one night and awakes to find himself in what appears to be a shabby motel room. It's conveniently stocked with Joe-size clothing, a toothbrush and a small TV. But the door is locked—and it stays locked for the next 20 years.
Brolin gives a performance of near-demented intensity. His Joe is at first simply baffled by his strange situation. Trays full of Chinese takeout and pint bottles of the vodka to which he's partial are regularly slid through an opening at the bottom of the door. Then, early on, a thick mist pours out of vents in the ceiling, rendering him unconscious. A team of silent men enters the room; they draw a syringe full of his blood, take a DNA swab of his mouth and then withdraw. Joe comes to after awhile, and a bit later sees a television news report about the rape and murder of his ex-wife; police say that "irrefutable evidence" at the scene indicates that Joe is responsible. His baby daughter, Mia, has been taken away to be placed with a foster family.
After several years of unexplained captivity, Joe snaps out of his vodka haze. He begins pouring his booze ration down the toilet and he starts working out, schooling himself in the violent arts of the kung-fu movies he watches on his TV. At one point, many more years later, he sees a news interview with his daughter, now a young woman, who has become a professional cellist. Joe determines to escape his long confinement and locate her—and eventually, mysteriously, he does. The rest of the movie is an exercise in bloody vengeance. (Park's movie, derived from a late-'90s manga series, was the middle installment of a trilogy that includes two other unforgettable films, Mr. Vengeance and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance.)
Suddenly returned to the outside world, Joe is taken in by an old prep-school friend named Chucky (Spike Lee regular Michael Imperioli), who's now a bar owner. Alarmed by Joe's physical condition, Chucky calls in a free-clinic nurse named Marie (Elizabeth Olsen), who listens to Joe's story and believes him. Together they set out on a Chinatown tasting tour in search of the one restaurant serving the particular kind of dumpling that Joe was forced to consume for so long. Joe is ultimately led back to the private prison in which he had been held, one step closer to finding whoever it was who engineered his ordeal.
Lee faithfully replicates one famous scene in Park's movie—a long, vicious battle in which Joe, armed only with a hammer, takes on a herd of murderous thugs. (Like Park, Lee shot this intricately choreographed melee in one take, although he has since complained that an unwanted cut was imposed by his producers.) Lee has also added some creepy stylization of his own. He equips Samuel L. Jackson, as the bizarre prison manager, with a lip stud, a bright-blond Mohawk and—together with Sharlto Copley, as the twisted billionaire who holds the key to the mystery—a wardrobe of eccentric nightmare clothing. The inscrutable woman hovering around the edge of the action in Park's movie (her presence is never a good sign) is also here, now provided with a signifying umbrella and exotic red eyelashes. (Icy-eyed Pom Klementieff is suitably spooky in the role.)
Movie remakes are always a dicey proposition—they're often just limp duplications of superior films. But Lee, while hewing close to the essentials of Park's classic shocker, has put his own grim spin on the basic elements. Brolin is a spectacular asset in this undertaking. His unhinged avenger is an even more unpleasant character than the one played by Choi Min-sik in Park's film—a ferocious violence is his central method of communication. There's nothing to like about this guy, but we root for him anyway. This may say something about us, I suppose. Happily, though, nothing so didactic is really the point.