Hard-hearted and ostentatiously nasty, the psychological thriller Oldboy is the most stylish thing Spike Lee has been involved with for years. That's good for Lee — he appropriately handles the lurid material with cool, level-headed detachment. But it's evidently not so thrilling for the possessive cult that has built up around the property since South Korean director Park Chan-wook first wrote the screenplay — adapted from the Japanese manga by Garon Tsuchiya and Nobuaki Minegishi — for his 2003 shocker of the same title. The fan boys revere their favorite version of the revenge tale to the exclusion of all others, but Lee's Oldboy turns out to be as spectacular as Park's. And if we factor in the rapprochement of actors Josh Brolin and Elizabeth Olsen, the new film is better.
Of course, that means embracing the story of Joe Doucette (Brolin), an alcoholic salesman whose drunken night of self-pity after blowing a sale turns into a twenty-year-long nightmare of imprisonment, torture, and emotional anguish. Seems he once did something wrong to someone, and now he must pay. Into Joe's already bizarre life rush a mysterious individual named Adrian Doyle Pryce (Sharlto Copley from District 9); Chucky, a former prep school classmate (Michael Imperioli); a grotesque thug called Chaney (Samuel L. Jackson); Pryce's chop-socky assistant Haeng-Bok (the intriguingly named Pom Klementieff); and a thoughtful young woman, Joe's only friend, Marie Sebastian (Olsen).
Brolin and Olsen are terrific together as allies and lovers, with a tenderness against all odds that speaks volumes for Lee's skill with boy-girl relations. But then Brolin and Olsen are almost always good. Give them a decent set-up and they're unstoppable. But we shouldn't dwell too much on their tryst. Oldboy is notoriously all about inflicting punishment, no matter who's directing. Joe beats on many, many goons, who fall like apples. It becomes silly, but there's an undeniable rhythm.
While K-dazed fan boys were moaning about Lee's trespassing, ambitious filmmaker Park was making his English-language debut in Stoker, a more satisfying and much better written oddball melodrama than either one of the Oldboys. See it before you complain too much about the kinky tableaux through which Joe Doucette wanders. No matter which country it comes from, clear and expressive writing, not more inventive brutality, is the key to memorable storytelling.