One of the great disappointments of the post-1990s American crime thriller is its general disinterest in its country’s evolving political and economic landscapes. The anxieties of World War II explicitly informed many of the great and even not-so-great noirs released in the 1940s and 1950s, just as the Vietnam War directly shaped the crime films that emerged in the age of Martin Scorsese, Sidney Lumet, and others. The subtext of most contemporary crime thrillers, however, is their fealty to past films. There are probably many reasons for this demoralizing evolution, particularly that we’re all now media addicts in a fashion that wasn’t possible in our grandfather’s age, but the point is that the general meaninglessness of so many modern genre films makes for a decidedly hollow pop culture at a time when this country’s classicism is particularly ripe for artistic reckoning.
This context serves to partially explain why Spike Lee’s Oldboy is such an unexpectedly gratifying surprise. At times, its craftsmanship recalls the director’s supple and rewarding Inside Man, only with a heightened strand of cynical perversity, but it most directly suggests the evil kissing cousin of Lee’s superb 25th Hour. In that film, Lee stripped away much of the excess that typically mars his work and arrived at a forgiving purity of overwhelming grace and compassion. The filmmaker looked at his country’s uncertainty and its wounded ego in the face of 9/11 and dared to see the potential positive. The caricatures of his past films fell away, revealing irresolvable characters of true stature. Oldboy, however, concludes that 25th Hour’s optimism was absurdly misplaced.
Both films are about loners who face vast incarceration: The hero of 25th Hour makes peace with himself, while the antihero of Oldboy realizes that he’s damaged and must take his personal shunning from his larger society into his own hands for the good of said society. That’s a martyr concept that’s familiar to an addict, which is no accident, as Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) is an alcoholic whom we first see in the early 1990s at the height of his self-entitled braggadocio. Joe’s soon kidnapped and held in the confines of a mysterious institution that appears to serve as a prison for the vastly wealthy underworld. For 20 years, he’s fed only dumplings, cheap cereal, water, and initially vodka, and knows the world’s events, such as the elections of Clinton, Bush, and Obama, through only a few channels on an antiquated television. In a sick joke, there’s a fake window with a mechanism that rotates variations of an outdoor painting every 12 hours to reflect the day’s change into night—an illusion that mocks Joe as he desperately befriends mice to assuage his loneliness. Through it all, Joe has no idea who did this to him, until he’s suddenly released into society, a newly fit and sober man hell bent on vengeance.
The film proceeds as a ghastly parody of a recovering alcoholic’s 12-step program, as Joe must probe the various cruelties he committed in his past, often drunk, in order to uncover the reason a very well-connected someone would target him. The mystery itself is absurd, but Lee lends it a metaphorical weight that resonates in an age that sees second-by-second reports of the antics of the unimaginably privileged, and where the news is actively manipulated to sedate and stimulate the complacent populace on cue. Oldboy makes no pretense of taking place in the real world, as it’s set in an imaginary movie city of heighted reds and greens in which thugs can wage ultraviolent battle out in the open with no interference from the government. But the film’s hopelessness, especially in the context of that tellingly inserted montage of presidential elections, can’t help but connect to the worldview of a disenfranchised American watching the presently widening gulfs between the Have-Everythings and the Have-Nothings.
Oldboy obviously borrows many of its specifics from the extravagantly over-praised 2003 film of the same name, but Park Chan-wook didn’t ground the parade of atrocities in much of anything resembling metaphor or subtext, and so his film was a wearying stunt. Lee’s Oldboy is tamer than Park’s in terms of on-screen mayhem, but it’s consequently more suggestively outrageous. Like a David Lynch film, this Oldboy seems to be forever on the verge of jumping the rails into the realm of the transgressive, and that sense of enforced restraint imbues the film with a feeling of caged energy that’s disquieting. (A thug, played by Samuel L. Jackson, utters a threat to Joe at one point that’s crazier than any of the first film’s showy dismemberment or octopus-eating). Lee’s Oldboy has problems, particularly the stop-and-start pacing of the second half, which would seem to validate the rumors of a much longer previous cut, but it’s an intense genre film refreshingly concerned with something other than the masturbatory internal specifics of every genre film that preceded it. That it’s a remake only ironically reinforces the film’s wryly disenchanted consumerist media concerns.
A typically attentive Sony transfer that impressively indicates the film’s subtle visual evolution over the course of the narrative. The first act resembles a 1990s Spike Lee joint in its graininess and blown-out color contrast, while the latter acts sport the hyper-florid color patterns that are associated with certain Asian thrillers (such as Park Chan-wook’s). This transfer not only looks good, it looks appropriate, and detail levels are outstanding. No complaints on the English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 either: It’s a full and robust track that’s both subtle and big and bold when it needs to be. Oldboy is an art film for red-meat lovers, and all those attendant contrasts are well represented here.
The slim "Making of Oldboy" is only a little better than the traditional EPK-friendly featurettes. You occasionally get to see footage of Lee directing his actors, and Josh Brolin is charismatic in his interviews, but it’s still basically fluff, and the other featurettes are entirely skippable. The deleted and extended scenes occasionally suggest the operatic surreality that Lee may have been going for in his original longer cut, as there’s one boffo character-motivated tracking shot in the bad guy’s lair that should’ve remained in the film, but they don’t tell us much else.
An unsung 21st-century American noir receives the audio-visual treatment it deserves. But don’t expect much in the way of supplemental context.