Of all the movies he's directed in a decidedly uneven career, Spike Lee's newest production, "Oldboy," qualifies as the strangest and perhaps the least Spikeish of all his works. To begin with, the picture derives from an unusual source, a Korean movie based on one of those Japanese graphic novels known as manga. Remaking a previous work itself seems an unusual choice for Lee; the fact that "Oldboy" makes no gestures in the direction of contemporary social and political relevance seems equally unusual.
Presumably following its literary and cinematic predecessors, the movie combines elements of the thriller, the horror flick, the mystery, torture porn, and even moments from kung-fu and ninja pictures — again hardly the usual Spike Lee material. Alluding to that influence further, much of "Oldboy" takes place in the Chinatown of an unnamed city, and a major clue in its mystery involves tracking down a particular Chinese restaurant.
Josh Brolin plays Joe Doucett, an alcoholic advertising salesman who acts outrageously in every area of his life — he's behind in child support payments to his ex-wife, neglects his 3-year-old daughter, and destroys a big deal by making a heavy pass at a client's girlfriend. After that incident he staggers drunkenly through the streets of Chinatown, then passes out and awakens in a sort of motel version of a prison cell, where amazingly he ends up spending 20 years in a kind of solitary confinement.
Through the years of his imprisonment Doucett learns about the outside world from the television screen fixed in a wall; he also learns that somehow he has been framed for the murder of his ex-wife. He manages to wean himself off the vodka that his captors generously provide to keep him docile and gradually works himself into terrific physical shape. Then as suddenly and inexplicably as it began, his incarceration ends when, shaven, cleaned up, and clothed in a black suit, he awakens in an empty field.
From that moment on, the movie settles into a relentless revenge plot, as Doucett, acting ingeniously on some faint clues, travels a troubled, violent path toward some solution to his mystery; he must find out why he was imprisoned, wreak some vengeance on his captor, and also search for the daughter he hasn't seen in two decades. Assisted by a young woman (Elizabeth Olsen) and his best friend Chucky (Michael Imperioli), he finds that he must revisit his youth for the answers he seeks. All the while some omniscient figure (Sharlto Copley) observes Doucett on a seemingly endless array of video cameras installed wherever he goes, finally confronting him with a challenge he must accept.
Aside from that entirely engaging mystery, much of the story falls into the patterns of the kung-fu movies, with Doucett vanquishing several dozen bad guys with some nifty physical maneuvers and weapons like a 2"x4" and a hammer. When he finds his chief jailer, Chaney (Samuel L. Jackson), the action thickens into a series of graphic torture scenes, complete with copious amounts of blood and a few disassembled bodies.
"Oldboy" is not the sort of motion picture that depends on rich characterization or impressive performances, which may in part account for its thoroughgoing hyperbole. Sharlto Copley's character, the billionaire Adrian Bryce, exerts complete control over everything and everyone in the film, acting with a godlike omniscience and omnipotence that defy any sense of credibility. Attired in a long skirt and a Victorian-era red jacket, sporting a silver Mohawk and a pair of implausible goggles, Samuel L. Jackson chews up the scenery as a dedicated sadist in the employ of Bryce, overseeing what looks like a whole puzzling anthology of prison cells and captives.
Despite its entirely preposterous situation and its bizarre resolution, "Oldboy" maintains a terrific pace, based on its most intriguing puzzle and its nonstop action. Within its thriller structure, the mystery partially compensates for the remarkable exaggerations of its conception. Its characters, as their strange costumes and mannerisms indicate, attain a level of stylization as outrageous as its plot and its final revelations of bloody violence, complex incest, and a weird kind of acceptance sentimentalize much of the shocking action that precedes it.