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When Josh Brolin picks up a claw hammer in “Oldboy,” the time for vengeance has come.

That vengeance has been a long time coming — 20 years, in fact. It’s been that long since Brolin’s character was grabbed, drunk and drenched, off the rain-soaked streets of an anonymous city by persons unknown and locked up in what appears to be a crummy hotel room. For 20 years Joe has languished there in solitary confinement, fed a steady diet of Chinese takeout and vodka (Joe is an alcoholic, and his mysterious tormentor is stoking his alcohol jones). For entertainment he’s been fed a steady diet of exercise videos and kung-fu movies on the room’s TV, which is always on.

And then one day, he wakes up in a big steamer trunk in a meadow somewhere, clean-shaven in a coal-black suit. Just like that, he’s free. And he’s got questions. Who did this to him? And why?

He wants answers. Wielding that claw hammer and a razor-edged box-cutter, and using fighting skills learned by watching those kung-fu movies, he will get them. And make whoever imprisoned him pay. Oh, how his tormentors will pay.

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The source material for “Oldboy” is a twisty and very twisted (and critically lauded) 2003 Korean thriller. The director is Spike Lee. The picture is a blood-soaked farrago of physical and psychological torture, though it’s not nearly as extreme as the Korean version. (No claw-hammer dentistry scenes in this one!)

With Brolin excellent as the anguished man in black, “Oldboy” is also an intriguing study of a terribly flawed individual — booze-soaked, egomaniacal — whose flaws hold the key to the picture’s central mysteries. With the help of a sympathetic young woman played by Elizabeth Olsen, he tries to tease apart the tangled skeins of his past misdeeds and somehow redeem himself. And as he does so, he learns that revenge is a two-way street and that his tormentor’s long-term abuse has a perversely logical rationale.

Be warned: Redemption, or what passes for it in this picture, comes at a horrifyingly high price.

Soren Andersen:

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