To appreciate Spike Lee’s twisted revenge thriller “Oldboy,” keep repeating, “It’s a comic book. It’s a comic book.” Release the grab bar of realism and let yourself float into the nightmare.
The film is based on a Japanese graphic novel whose story updates “The Count of Monte Cristo.” Guy is unjustly imprisoned, gets out, seeks vengeance. South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook (“Stoker”) made an ultraviolent 2003 version revered by lovers of sick and twisted cinema, me included.
Lee’s Americanized take pushes even further into pulp shocker territory. Either you grant this relentlessly absurd movie access to your “Sin City”-loving inner 12-year-old, or you skip it.
Josh Brolin plays Joe Doucett, a sleazeball advertising man. We meet him on an epically bad day that begins with losing a key account and ends with him waking up hungover in a generic hotel room with no phone and no inside handle on the door. He’s imprisoned for unnamed crimes, and framed for a horrendous murder. He spends the next two decades obsessively watching TV, training his body and writing apology letters to his little lost daughter. When he’s inexplicably released, he goes looking for answers. With a claw hammer. Thor, watch and learn.
With its gothic themes, stomach-churning violence and labyrinthine plot twists, “Oldboy” repeatedly winks and nods to the audience to make sure they’re in on the joke. Sharlto Copley, his voice dripping evil as Joe’s sinister, dandified nemesis, stops just short of a Vincent Price “Mwahahahaha.” Samuel L. Jackson finds a gold mine of campiness in his showy role as a henchman.
The fight scenes are big, complicated and improbable. The Korean version had its mallet-swinging antihero mangle and maim two dozen assailants in a single, unbroken dolly shot. Lee’s version moves the action through three levels of a parking ramp with even more thugs. If you ask why none of them has a gun, you’re probably watching the wrong movie.
Lee directs this deranged undertaking with great formal control and confidence (he did not have control of the final cut, which was reportedly trimmed from three hours to 104 minutes). The suspense is taut, provided you can prevent yourself from frequently yelling, “That’s not possible.” Remember: comic book.
“Oldboy” frequently has its tongue in both cheeks, but not always. Elizabeth Olsen, a phenomenal actress, plays Joe’s love interest and helper, an emotionally damaged girl with a weakness for lost causes. She’s terrific, giving what is usually a stock role a touching naturalistic presence that’s vital as the story pulls the climactic Joker from its crooked sleeve. The taboo-shattering screenplay by Mark Protosevich reaches a darker conclusion than either its screen predecessor or the comic, which is some kind of perverse achievement. Pleasant dreams. Mwahahahaha.