Josh Brolin, with his loping physique and handsome, hangdog scowliness, is like Nick Nolte’s volatile younger brother, and in Spike Lee’s rivetingly intense Oldboy, he gives a terrific and harrowing performance as a slimeball out for justice. His Joe Doucett is a divorced, alcoholic macho screwup, the sort of guy who treats a business dinner as the chance to hit on a client’s girlfriend. After a bender, Joe wakes up to learn he’s been sealed into some bizarre, windowless Twilight Zone of a hotel room, where he’s served daily rations of Chinese dumplings and cheap vodka and ”entertained” with cheesy-sexy workout videos. He has no idea who kidnapped him or why, and that’s the film’s central mystery. But in a larger sense we do know why: This is karma’s way of teaching a bad old boy a lesson.
Remaking Park Chan-wook’s infamous 2003 South Korean cult thriller, Lee sticks reasonably close to the plot of the original — but beyond that, he’s made the first American film that fully conjures the perverse, loco charge of a sadomasochistic Asian revenge drama. Joe stays in his hotel-hell prison for 20 years, during which time he learns (through a tabloid-TV crime show) that his ex-wife has been murdered, and that he’s been framed for the killing. When he is suddenly released (he wakes up in a box in the middle of a field), he’s free to hunt down his enemy, and to find his now-grown daughter.
Much of Oldboy is gruesomely violent. Joe bashes men with hammers and tortures a video surveillance expert (Samuel L. Jackson, done up like a sci-fi peacock) by plucking bits of flesh out of his neck. Yet the puzzle Joe pieces together unfolds with an arresting logic, even as it’s bathed in blood. Elizabeth Olsen is sensual and urgent as the medical worker who falls under Joe’s desperate spell, and Sharlto Copley, as an enigmatic billionaire, hypnotizes you with his wounded malevolence. (Please cast him as a Bond villain.) In the end, the most impressive performance may be Spike Lee’s. He uses skill without gimmickry, flash without fuss, to tap the mesmerizing soul of this pulp. A-