Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) is a despicable, womanizing, lying drunk. Working for a small advertising agency in 1993, Joe is tasked by his boss to land the account of a car dealership over dinner and drinks. Joe succeeds in getting the owner to agree to a deal but ruins it when he hits on the client’s wife. He also has missed his daughter Mia’s third birthday party for this business dinner, making his ex-wife furious. Getting drunk and walking through the streets of the city, Joe stops by a bar run by his friend and former boarding school classmate Chucky (Michael Imperioli). Chucky turns him away because it’s after closing time. In the street outside the bar, Joe encounters an Asian woman carrying a yellow umbrella. The next thing he remembers is waking up in what looks like a cheap hotel room. He’s naked and has a hangover. Looking around, Joe notices there’s no phone and the door has no doorknob and sounds metallic when he bangs on it. A small panel opens at the bottom of the door and a tray with food and a bottle of vodka is slid in. Joe begs for someone to tell him why he’s being held but no one ever does. Soon after his incarceration began, Joe was pleasuring himself when knockout gas is pumped into the room. While Joe is unconscious, people are collecting samples of hair, cheek swabs and semen. There’s a small TV in Joe’s room where he sees news that his ex-wife has been raped and murdered and Joe is the prime suspect due to DNA evidence found at the scene. His daughter is found unharmed. Through the years, Joe sees a true crime TV show that occasionally has updates about the search for him and how Mia is doing. She’s been adopted by a family and plays the cello. Using pen and paper in the room, Joe begins writing letters to Mia, apologizing for what a bad father he was and how he plans on making up for it when he escapes from his imprisonment. He begins watching exercise TV shows and kickboxing matches and copying the moves. After some time, Joe is in much better shape. He has also given up drinking. Joe is working on an escape plan and is slowly scraping out the mortar between the bricks in the shower, managing to loosen and remove one. He keeps working until there’s a hole big enough to slip through. By now, it’s been 20 years since he was taken and Joe has amassed a huge number of letters to Mia that he hopes he can deliver in person. Just as he’s about to escape, Joe sees Mia interviewed on the true crime show. As he’s watching, knockout gas is pumped into the room and Joe passes out. He next wakes up in a storage trunk in the middle of a field. Looking around, Joe sees the same Asian woman holding an umbrella and begins chasing her. She is able to slip away after giving the umbrella to a homeless man standing in line at a mobile medical clinic. Joe is roughing the guy up and only stops when a nurse intervenes. Her name is Marie Sebastian (Elizabeth Olsen) and she is concerned for Joe as she can tell he’s quite upset. She gives him her card and he walks away, ending up at Chucky’s bar. Shocked to see his old friend after 20 years, Chucky asks where Joe has been and he tells him the entire story. Joe asks for help in figuring out who kidnapped him and why. Chucky introduces Joe to the Internet and cell phones (which Joe has woken up with in his pocket) and the two begin to try and figure out who started this strange journey…and why.
“Oldboy” is an American remake of a South Korean film which was based the Japanese manga of the same name. Director Spike Lee and screenwriter Mark Protosevich have taken a complicated story and done their best to make it something American audiences would enjoy. While I applaud their efforts, they come up a fair bit short in making a truly engrossing film.
There are numerous aspects of the story that don’t make a great deal of sense. The seemingly omnipotent bad guy who is responsible for all this mayhem has far too much access to places he can’t possibly know about enough in advance to arrange for surveillance which he seem to have everywhere. The bad guy’s plot is far too reliant on coincidence and everything falling perfectly into place in order to succeed. There seems to be layer after layer of deception that, when exposed, feels unnecessary. Everyone who helps Joe buys his story without question or reservation. I think most normal people would put up a bit of resistance to such an outrageous story. The fight choreography is also weak. There are two fight scenes happening one right after the other. Both are shot in one take with no edits. Neither is very good. While they filmmakers are attempting to both honor and copy the fight scene in the original, it all looks very amateurish. Brolin is facing 10 or 12 guys and they don’t think to all go at him at once. One guy takes a swing or hits him with a two by four (that breaks every time) while the rest are dancing around like they are in the “Beat It” video. It looks fairly ridiculous. Once everything is revealed by the film’s end, I felt a bit betrayed. Characters take actions that go against everything the movie has been about from the beginning. It is like going to med school, getting your degree and becoming a garbage man. Not that there’s anything wrong with being a garbage man if that’s what you want but why go through all the effort and not follow through once you’ve succeeded.
Despite my many reservations, I found the premise of the “Oldboy” to be fascinating and unique. The idea of being locked up with no reason given, never seeing another person and being left alone with no interaction is both interesting and terrifying. Being released without explanation would be equally freaky. The taunting phone calls from the person responsible for my captivity would probably drive me to insanity. There is a great deal of promise in “Oldboy” that isn’t taken advantage of. The desire to make a violent, disturbing film is lost in making one that can be sold to an American movie audience. While the film explores issues that may have many audience members squirming in their seats, the rest of the film is a pretty traditional revenge thriller with a few tantalizing glimpses at what could have been an instant classic. “Oldboy” is a squandered opportunity to make something special.
“Oldboy” is rated R for strong brutal violence, disturbing images, some graphic sexuality and nudity, and language. The violence is at times disturbing with some very graphic deaths by various means. There are beatings, shootings, suicides, threatened rape and more. There are a couple of sex scenes, neither of which is terribly sexy. One shows a fully clothed couple making some rather suggestive sounds while the other has a great deal of nudity. We also get a couple of looks at Josh Brolin’s bare backside. Foul language is fairly common but not overwhelming.
The original South Korean “Oldboy” is on Netflix instant streaming. I have never seen it but now I really want to so I can compare the two. I think I already know what I’m going to find: The Spike Lee “Oldboy,” despite its graphic violence and sexuality, pulls its punches and doesn’t go for the knock out. I realize there are very different sensibilities between American and Asian audiences; however, if you’re making a movie for adults, treat us like adults. I think we can take it and not run screaming from the theatre, clawing at our eyes, after seeing all the pretend and play-acting on the screen.
“Oldboy” gets three guitars out of five.
Three new movies hit a multiplex near you. I’ll see one based on your votes.
Great Expectations—Based on the novel by Charles Dickens, a humble orphan suddenly becomes a gentleman with the help of an unknown benefactor.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug—Having survived the first part of their unsettling journey, Bilbo Baggins and his companions continue east. More dangers await them, including the skin-changer Beorn and the giant spiders of Milkwood. Bilbo and the dwarves journey to Lake-town and, finally, to the Lonely Mountain, where they face the greatest danger of all: the fearsome dragon Smaug.
Tyler Perry’s A Medea Christmas—Madea gets coaxed into helping a friend pay her daughter a surprise visit in the country for Christmas, but the biggest surprise is what they'll find when they arrive. As the small, rural town prepares for its annual Christmas Jubilee, new secrets are revealed and old relationships are tested while Madea dishes her own brand of Christmas Spirit to all.
Stan’s Choice—Stan sees and reviews any film of his choice in theatres or On Demand.
Release dates are subject to change and not all films may be shown in Knoxville, TN.
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