Loosely based on a Japanese manga, Park Chan-wook’s 2003 South Korean thriller Oldboy was one of the finest, and indeed bloodiest, films of a year dominated by the concluding chapter of Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings trilogy.
Fast-forward a decade and Jackson has returned to Middle Earth for The Hobbit, while director Spike Lee oversees this English language remake of Chan-wook’s journey into the heart of darkness.
Alas, Lee’s version leaves an exceedingly nasty taste in the mouth. This Oldboy is even more giddily violent than its predecessor, cranking up the gore with sadistic glee. Audiences will stagger out of screenings knowing exactly how a cranium explodes when hit at speed with a hammer, or how to weaken a neck by cutting out chunks of flesh with a Stanley knife.
Think twice about ordering that hot dog from the concessions stand.
It’s October 1993 and advertising executive Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) is a sorry excuse for a husband and father. In the midst of a rainstorm, he vanishes without trace from outside a bar run by his pal Chucky (Michael Imperioli). Joe wakes in a motel room, which turns out to be a prison cell under the constant surveillance of a shady character called Chaney (Samuel L Jackson).
He is held hostage for the next 20 years, watching TV reports which reveal that he is the prime suspect for the murder of his ex-wife (Hannah Ware), and his daughter Mia has been placed in foster care.
Almost as suddenly as he disappeared, Joe is then returned to the land of the living with a wallet full of cash and a mobile telephone. An enigmatic Stranger (Sharlto Copley) calls and reveals that Mia’s life hangs in the balance.
To save her, Joe must simply answer two questions relating to the Stranger’s past: “Who I am and why did I imprison you?”
A plucky social worker called Marie (Elizabeth Olsen) becomes an unlikely ally, helping Joe piece together fragmented memories of an inglorious past.
Oldboy has numerous stylistic flourishes, including a woozy sequence of Joe stumbling drunkenly around city streets, but absolutely no soul. Characters all look dead behind the eyes and it’s hard to tether sympathy as they wade through the mire of brutality, torture and attempted rape.
The original film’s infamous fight sequence, shot in a single take, is now a protracted skirmish on four storeys of a warehouse.
Brolin and Olsen embolden thinly sketched protagonists as best they can while the tricksy plot uncoils around them.
When one of the characters warns Joe not to hurt Marie because, “She’s been through a lot and if there’s one thing she doesn’t need more of is pain”, we echo that sentiment. We’re sick of the suffering too.