Spike Lee’s ‘Oldboy’ is a crazy remake of the Korean cult classic

Josh Brolin does his best impersonation of "Oldboy" star Choi Min-sik in the remake, directed by Spike Lee. Credit: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle
Josh Brolin does his best impersonation of “Oldboy” star Choi Min-sik in the remake, directed by Spike Lee.
Credit: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle

‘Olboy’
Director: Spike Lee
Stars: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

No, Spike Lee doesn’t reinvent “Oldboy,” the 2003 South Korean vengeance classic that’s only been remade in Hollywood because Americans don’t like subtitles. It’s a tale heavily reliant on plot, even moreso here, in a version that’s more streamlined and, as a result, 20 minutes shorter. But it’s still a Spike Lee film (not “joint,” a word unusually and eerily missing from the credits). “Inside Man” proved he could force genre films to fit his own eccentric whims even while delivering the goods. And while the tight structure leaves him with too little room to fool around, his “Oldboy” is told with a lurid, funny, crazy tone that makes it probably edgier, if superficially, than the movie it’s copying.

The script, by Mark Petrosevich (“I Am Legend”), sticks, if you will, to the script. Josh Brolin plays Joe Doucett, an alkie nogoodnik who, in 1993, wakes from a bender in a hotel room with fake windows and no way out. He spends the next 20 years there. (It was 15 years in the original. See, it’s not so similar!) Upon his abrupt release, he goes on the hunt to find out who imprisoned him and why. Soon he’s aided by a nice young recovering addict (Elizabeth Olsen) who’s used to helping the needy.

To be frank, the first “Oldboy” isn’t a masterpiece (though director Park Chan-wook’s “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” is.) Petrosevich cleans up some of the needlessly busy plotting and chucks its most groaning aspect, which “fixes” a narrative headache with that old soap opera standby: hypnosis.

But it’s really Lee’s approach that gives it a reason for being, however questionable that is. Lee can’t top Park’s legendary hammer scene, despite breaking free from the video game sidescroller format and adding another level. (He also chucks the octopus eating scene, which is actually the most Spike Lee thing about the original.) But he recklessly mixes tones, as he’s wont to do. Brolin broods and Olsen is serious. But everything else is a cartoon — a gory, bloody, often messed-up cartoon. One character in the original had teeth removed with a hammer; the guy here (Samuel L. Jackson, with funny hair, of course) endures a far weirder punishment.

Should Spike Lee be making a tightly plotted thriller? And what, honestly, is a Spike Lee movie? He’s often defined by his politics, of which “Oldboy” has little. But his films are also hilarious. And he’s generous. He’s collaborative, and he shows a genuine interest in capturing what others have to say, even if Lee himself disagrees with or even hates those views. Believe it or not, there’s a compassion here that’s far more pronounced than in the Park “Oldboy,” and one that slightly tempers a character who oozes old school homophobia (a problem Lee has shown before).

It’s still hugely problematic and questionable. The montage depicting Joe’s lengthy imprisonment is some of his finest work, but the rest of the film gives him too few occasions to show off. One showstopper — a flashback sequence in which characters from the present walk through the past that’s being revealed — is such a cliche it’s a wonder Lee thought to employ it at all. But only Lee would, in his least political film, throw in a 9/11 reference. (He was, remember, the first filmmaker to use 9/11, with “25th Hour,” when studios were scrubbing it from screens new and old.) It’s an unearned moment, but that makes it weirdly more effective. You feel anything could happen, even if you know exactly what’s going to happen.



News
Entertainment
Sports
Lifestyle
Local

Brooklyn man charged in roommate's stabbing death

A Brooklyn man accused of violently stabbing his roommate to death on Monday is in police custody and faces murder charges.

International

Dinosaurs could have survived asteroid strike

It turns out there is a good and a bad time for the planet to be hit by a meteor, and dinosaurs were just unlucky.…

National

OkCupid admits to Facebook-style experimenting on customers

By Sarah McBrideSAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - OkCupid, a top U.S. matchmaking website, intentionally mismatched users to test its technology, the IAC/InterActive Corp service said on…

Local

MTA fares still increasing 4 percent in newly…

The agency said the 4 percent increases, previously announced in December, will remain steady even as the MTA deals with increasing labor costs.

Movies

Interview: Brendan Gleeson on the way 'Calvary' depicts…

Brendan Gleeson talks about how his new film "Calvary" began over drinks and how his character here is the opposite of the lead in "The Guard."

Movies

'Get on Up' producer Mick Jagger on the…

Mick Jagger, a producer on the James Brown biopic "Get on Up," talks about the time had to tell the singer some bad news and his favorite JB record.

Television

'Glee' star Lea Michele to appear on 'Sons…

"Glee" star Lea Michele has been confirmed as a guest star in the final season of "Sons of Anarchy."

Television

TV watch list, Monday, July 28: 'The Bachelorette'…

See Andi Dorfman make her big choice on tonight's 'Bachelorette' finale.

MLB

Angelo Cataldi: Ryan Howard deserves better from Phillies

Just last week, Ryan Howard endured the embarrassment of a benching that was inevitable, and yet still shocking.

NFL

Larry Donnell has inside track in Giants tight…

Little-known Larry Donnell of Grambling State currently has the inside track, as the second-year player has received the bulk of the first-team reps.

NFL

Computer to Jets: Start Michael Vick over Geno…

Jets general manager John Idzik says the choice of who starts between second-year quarterback Geno Smith and veteran Michael Vick will be a “Jets decision.”

MLB

Yankees looking to trade for Josh Willingham: Report

CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman reported Sunday the Yankees are interested in Twins outfielder Josh Willingham.

Travel

Glasgow: Hey, hey, the gangs aren't here

This European city has done a good job getting rid of its more violent residents and revitalizing with artists.

Education

Babson College tops list of best colleges for…

Money magazine has just released its inaugural list of "The Best Colleges for Your Money" -- and the answers have surprised many. Babson College, which…

Education

NYC teens learn how to develop apps during…

Through a program sponsored by CampInteractive, the high schoolers designed their own community-focused apps.

Tech

The Ministry of Silly Walks app is both…

Monty Python have dug into their back catalogue for cash-ins once more, but with the Ministry of Silly Walks app, they've made something that's fun too.