Spike Lee’s Oldboy: You Can Check Out Any Time You Like, but …

November 29, 2013

Grade: 83
Cast: Josh Brolin, Samuel L. Jackson, Sharlto Copley, Elizabeth Olsen
Director: Spike Lee
Rated: R, for sex, language and violence
Running time:97 minutes

By A.O. Scott for The New York Times

The question that propels“Oldboy, Spike Lee’s kinetic and colorful new movie, is “Why?” Why has somebody — for a long time, we don’t know who — taken the trouble to kidnap Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin), an alcoholic advertising executive, and lock him up in a fake hotel room for 20 years? Why has Joe been framed for a murder and then, after making a mental journey to madness and back, set free?
OldboyNYCCposterBrickmid-xlarge2A related question would be why Mr. Lee devoted so much time and labor to remaking a South Korean revenger’s tale, originally directed by Park Chan-wook, that has acquired a passionate cult following in international fanboy circles. Reviewing the original in The New York Times in 2005, Manohla Dargis noted Mr. Park’s stylistic debt to past and present filmmakers, including Stanley Kubrick, Luis Buñuel and David Fincher. Mr. Lee, a true original who sometimes wears his influences on his sleeve, is thus in the potentially awkward position of replicating a movie notable for its imitations of other movies.

The result is often puzzling but rarely lifeless. The action begins in a smudgy, rain-soaked city (not quite New York, but not quite not New York, given a metallic griminess by Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography), through which Joe barrels in a state of drunken desperation. A raging alcoholic and an all-around jerk, he seems richly deserving of whatever humiliations lie in store. But the punishment he receives seems disproportionate to his overall worthlessness, and this discrepancy is part of the film’s mystery.

After an epic bender, Joe wakes up in a tidy hotel room from which there is no escape. Meals — usually a pint of vodka and some Chinese takeout dumplings — are delivered through a slot at the bottom of the door, and a wall-mounted television marks the passage of time with news events that are as familiar to the audience as they are mystifying to Joe.

Once he is out, there are a few Rip Van Winkle-ish winks at how much has changed. “Where are all the pay phones?” he wonders at one point, and he is mystified by smartphone ringtones. Helping him with these technical difficulties — and with other problems — is Marie (Elizabeth Olsen), a social worker who also awakens Joe’s protective instincts. Tormented by his failure to keep his wife and young daughter safe before his captivity, he wants to atone, as well as to take revenge on his captors.

I won’t say too much about that, except to note that Mr. Brolin has some nasty encounters with Samuel L. Jackson and Sharlto Copley, and that Mr. Lee tries his hand as a choreographer of stylized, super-bloody violence. Some of the fight scenes are staged with the gaudy flair of musical dance numbers, and at times they approach the grisly, brightly hued surrealism that is Mr. Park’s specialty.

Vengeance — as a dramatic device, an excuse for mayhem and an emotional catalyst — has always been his particular obsession. But it has not figured prominently in Mr. Lee’s work. His heroes tend to be proud and purposeful, but also ambivalent. What makes characters like Mookie in Do The Right Thing and Monty Brogan in 25th Hour interesting is their capacity for hesitant reflection in the midst of action. Joe Doucett is simply confused.

And the second half of Oldboy succumbs to his confusion as it tries to infuse a busy plot with tragic intensity. Mr. Brolin is at his best when Joe is still confined in that creepy hotel room, where he evolves from shaggy self-pity toward disciplined determination. This transformation — for which the actor gained and lost a lot of weight — is the most haunting and touching part of the movie, the only part that strikes a genuine chord of feeling.

Afterward, there are action, swearing, sex and frenetic exposition. Mr. Park’s Oldboy, based on a manga by Garon Tsuchiya and Nobuaki Minegishi, has a baroque back story that Mr. Lee struggles to keep on the right side of preposterousness. If you have seen the earlier version, you can occupy yourself with point-by-point comparisons. If not, you may find yourself swerving between bafflement and mild astonishment, wondering how a movie that works so hard to generate intensity and surprise can feel so routine and bereft of genuine imagination.

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