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Revenge is Anything but Sweet in Garishly Violent Oldboy

  • Christa Banister Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
  • 2013 11 Nov
  • COMMENTS
Revenge is Anything but Sweet in Garishly Violent <i>Oldboy</i>

DVD Release Date: March 4, 2014
Theatrical Release Date: November 27, 2013
Rating: R (for strong brutal violence, disturbing images, some graphic sexuality and nudity, and language)
Genre: Action/Thriller/Remake
Run Time: 104 min.
Director: Spike Lee
Cast: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, Samuel L. Jackson, Sharito Copley, Michael Imperioli, Max Casella

Love him or loathe him, Spike Lee has made a career out of rattling cages, particularly in regard to past and present race relations. With everything from the critically panned Miracle at St. Anna to the one-two punch of Do the Right Thing and Jungle Fever that helped solidify his place as one of America’s most controversial filmmakers, what will inspire Lee next is always anyone's guess.

In fact, in 2006, Lee threw a proverbial curveball to the masses with a straight-up thriller, Inside Man. Proving he could make an engaging film that was light—or at least, lighter—on social commentary and heavy on the high-stakes action, Lee showcased a more accessible, cerebral side and was granted an upcoming sequel (no release date has been announced yet) for his efforts.

Still, Spike being Spike, unpredictability is part of his appeal, so remaking a 2003 Korean cult classic with Oldboy probably made perfect sense to him. An unsettling revenge tale with questionable timing considering that family holidays don’t typically scream let’s-see-a-garishly-violent-vengeance-film-where-people-are-obliterated-with-hammers, Oldboy is like a darker, grittier Count of Monte Cristo without any of that pesky food for thought.

Yes, other than the perverse pleasure that’s taken in showcasing graphic sexuality and hurting people in garishly violent ways, something that Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez have already cornered the market on, Oldboy's greatest crime is that it’s basically all spectacle for spectacle's sake. Without anything resembling a point of view to anchor it, an oddity for a Lee film, Oldboy comes across a strangely apathetic waste of time.

Really, the only thing Oldboy has remotely working in its favor is Josh Brolin (Gangster Squad), who could probably play a depraved character like Joe Doucett in his sleep. Tackling the role of a deadbeat dad with a major drinking problem with aplomb, Brolin expertly rolls with the punches, even when the story truly goes off the rails (and trust me, it doesn't take long for Oldboy to descend into utter madness).

After waking from his latest drunken stupor, Joe finds himself in a seedy hotel room without the benefit of windows or a working phone. What Joe does have to mark the passage of time, however, is a television, which doesn't exactly have good news for him either. As it turns out, he's the prime suspect in the rape and murder of his ex-wife, and chances are, he won't see his young daughter again either.

Not sure how he landed in this situation, who is responsible, or if he'll ever escape his drab surroundings, Joe spends the next two decades as a prisoner. Thanks to someone who reliably delivers the same Chinese dumplings day after day, though, Joe doesn't starve, and because of the television access, he spends his time learning martial arts, a useful skill for the future, perhaps?

Funny enough, it's just when it looks like he's going to be stuck at a Motel 6 for the rest of his life when someone finally decides to free ol' Joe. Knowing he'll want to discover the identity of the person/people who stole his freedom—and why—the road to redeeming those lost years isn't exactly paved with possibility. If anything, being stranded at a dingy hotel was the least of his worries.

Filled with one drastic leap of logic after another, Lee relies on shock value and ridiculous twists of plot to sustain the audience's attention. No doubt a fantastical amount of care was invested in the stylistic details of how people ultimately meet their demise, but the same courtesy wasn’t extended to storytelling or characterization.

To wit, the only person who leaves a positive impression is the social worker, Marie, who's played with actual emotional depth by Elizabeth Olsen (Liberal Arts). Making the most of a thankless role, namely the naïve but emphatic soul tasked with helping Joe find his way, Olsen is the only beating heart in this dismal production. Still, her winning performance isn't nearly enough to justify just shy of two hours of suffering in this turkey of a revenge tale. Hopefully, Lee will get the memo and stick to what he knows.

CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers):

  • Drugs/Alcohol: Joe is an alcoholic, and he indulges in his poison of choice on many, many occasions.
  • Language/Profanity: F--- is the film's four-letter word of choice, plus there are several instances where God's name is misused.
  • Sex/Nudity: Unsettling themes of incest throughout. Two particularly graphic sex scenes, one involving teenagers, with full frontal female nudity and rear male nudity. A woman’s bare breasts are shown in another lengthy scene. A man's bare backside is shown as he exits the shower. A man masturbates while watching a woman on TV.
  • Violence/Disturbing Imagery: In the manner of Quentin Tarantino or one of Robert Rodriguez's grindhouse flicks, the violent outbursts are brazenly shocking and grotesque. Unlike, say, Thor, a hammer is used to particularly brutal, bloody effect in taking out a group of bodyguards. The end of the hammer is used again to pull out a man’s teeth for interrogation purposes (the teeth are eventually displayed on a computer keyboard). A man's throat has chunks removed by a man wielding a razor. One character cuts out his own tongue (a lot of blood is shown). A man's ear is cut by another man (not surprisingly, it’s really bloody, too). People also die by gunfire, suicide, stabbing, stylized hand-to-hand combat and a long fall from a dam. A live octopus is consumed. Discussion of Joe's ex-wife's murder and rape.

Publication date: November 27, 2013