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A Korean Cult Thriller Gets A Spike Lee Makeover

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
November 29, 2013

Spike Lee’s movies typically carry the label “A Spike Lee Joint,” but Oldboy doesn’t. He calls it “a Spike Lee Film,” which my guess is Lee’s way of saying he’s a gun for hire — and that after a line of box-office failures and difficulty getting financing for personal projects, he can make a fast, violent action thriller.

And as it happens, he can — a more-than-decent one. But this is also the first time I’ve come out of a Spike Lee film, bad or good, and not known why it had to be made. It’s brutal, effective and utterly without urgency.

Obviously, the chief reason it’s impersonal is that it’s a remake of a 2003 film by the South Korean provocateur Park Chan-wook. Both versions center on a mean, violent man who’s unexplainably kidnapped and held prisoner in a small room for years — 15 in the original, 20 in the remake.

Then he’s unexplainably released and sets out to get revenge, though he first has to figure out the cause of his captivity. What’s even more unexplainable is that the man behind his ordeal appears to be steering him toward the truth.

To help explain the theme, I need to put the plot in the context of Park’s work. Revenge is central to his films: He understands the Western obsession with an eye for an eye — or an eye, nose and teeth for an eye.

But he shoots his bloodbaths with morbid detachment: He mucks up the one-to-one correspondence between tit and tat. His Oldboy is unspeakably cruel, but it’s all of a piece.

Spike Lee’s moral universe is more orderly, which can be taken as a compliment. My guess is that what drew him to Oldboy was the chance to spell out the decadence and vileness of the prep-school elite to which the protagonist belongs.

That protagonist is Joe Doucett, played by Josh Brolin, and unlike his South Korean counterpart, he’s unusually unmagnetic, an apelike brute. Brolin is best when he wakes up in his room — more like a cage with a slot in the door for food. His only company is a TV, and Brolin’s reaction to what he sees on it is unhinged, feral and very moving: His ex-wife has been murdered, he’s been framed, and his little daughter is up for adoption.

When Joe wakes up free by the side of a road, he wastes no time in beating up some athletes who hassle him; he appears to kill one, though that’s not confirmed. His only allies are a bar owner and old classmate, played by Michael Imperioli, and a do-gooder named Marie (Elizabeth Olsen).

Olsen isn’t particularly effective, which is a surprise: I just saw her in a miserable Off Broadway production of Romeo and Juliet, and she was terrific. She has classical chops, and her face, with its wide planes, is arresting. But Lee can’t make Marie’s growing intimacy with the damaged Joe credible.

The rest of the cast is no more memorable, though South African actor Sharlto Copley (District 9) has moments as a histrionic stranger. The violence, meanwhile, is extreme — lots of computer-generated blood and brain matter, most of it gratuitous.

Lee does best with some well choreographed hand-to-hand fight scenes between Joe and hordes of bad guys shot in fluid single takes. The fights are spare but elegant — unlike, say, Quentin Tarantino’s elaborate ballets in his revenge film, Kill Bill.

Lee and Tarantino lobbed public insults at each other over Jackie Brown and later Django Unchained, and it could be that’s the best reason in Lee’s mind to remake Oldboy. Like his protagonist, Lee’s looking to show up his adversary — to get his own brand of revenge. [Copyright 2013 NPR]

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