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.


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