“Oldboy” balances brutal subject matter with intelligent mystery

Colin McLaughlin

Spike Lee’s re-imagining of the critically acclaimed South Korean film “Oldboy” deserves to be assessed on its own merits. Lee took challenging material and forged it into a brutal but intelligent thriller. 

Josh Brolin stars as Joe Doucett, an alcoholic advertising executive who is kidnapped the night of his daughter’s birthday. Without explanation, Doucett is confined to an unusually comfortable prison cell. The only contact he has with the outside world is a TV. After learning of his wife’s murder, Doucett becomes committed to finding his missing daughter, spending his imprisonment harnessing a vicious drinking problem and preparing for his escape. Exactly 20 years later, Doucett is released by his faceless captors and given a challenge — find out who imprisoned him and why, or his daughter dies. 

“Oldboy” is a mesh of revenge thriller, martial-arts action and neo-noir mystery. Lee balances these genres successfully and combines them to patiently create a believable world. Instead of skimming through the prison scenes to get to the action, Lee stretches Doucett’s confinement across the first half hour, tracking his mental descent from confusion to anger and desperation and, finally, simple resolve. The slow build to Doucett’s eventual release justifies some of the more sadistic violent acts to follow, but even the action is fairly restrained. The movie never feels like it’s sidelining the story for the sake of another fight scene. 

With villainous roles in “Milk” and “True Grit,” Brolin has mastered the art of showing rage beneath a character’s surface, and he channels that into a strong leading performance.

The downside of focusing so much on Brolin’s character is that the rest of the cast feels underdeveloped. Elizabeth Olsen plays a clinic nurse who can see past Doucett’s rage, and she ultimately comes off as a narrative prop, existing to remind the audience that Doucett is, in fact, the protagonist. The script never fleshes out Olsen’s character, and it’s hard to imagine that she would warm so quickly to Brolin’s imposing presence.

Sharlto Copley is likewise defined entirely by his sinister wardrobe and accent. The latter half of the film tries to shed light on the character’s motivations, but the backstory never seems to click with the horrific actions he commits. Only Samuel L. Jackson manages to stand out in his small role as the prison warden, retaining his vulgar persona throughout a brutal interrogation scene.

Lee’s tale of punishment and revenge melds action and mystery efficiently to create a dark, engaging thriller. The movie doesn’t present Doucett as a likeable person, but it doesn’t forget what he has suffered. Even as he strikes down henchman after henchman with his hammer, Doucett is a broken man, and no amount of bloodshed can fill the emptiness left by his imprisonment.