There’s not a lot I can recall off the top of my head about 2003, save for a couple of traumatic memories. There was that awful Aaron Boone hit that ended the ALCS, and a press screening of Park Chan-Wook’s “Oldboy.” Both sent me home early on their respective evenings, not wanting to talk to anybody anymore.
One of the most extreme examples of “the extreme Asian cinema” craze that momentarily had American art-house audiences barfing into their popcorn bags ten years ago, “Oldboy” was an outrageous affront that’s grown into something of a legend over the ensuing decade. Adapted from a Japanese comic, it served as “The Empire Strikes Back” of Park’s unofficial “vengeance trilogy,” meting out punishment to both characters and viewers with such sick, sadistic precision that it’s the kind of movie you show to your friends when you’re mad at them. I understand that it’s brilliant but I still never want to see it again.
So I honestly don’t understand why anybody would want to try and remake “Oldboy.” But I guess every foreign language movie that attains even a modest level of success must be eventually be re-shot in English for folks who don’t want to be bothered reading subtitles. The most delicious story floating around Hollywood development circles over the past few years was that Steven Spielberg was going to remake it with Will Smith in the lead role. Cooler heads must have prevailed, because we eventually ended up with Spike Lee and Josh Brolin instead. (Let it be recorded that this is the first and last time in history that Spike Lee and Josh Brolin have ever been referred to as “cooler heads.”)
A brief summary: Brolin stars as Joe Doucette, a loutish, miserable alcoholic advertising executive who thinks nothing of skipping his three-year-old daughter’s birthday party “because she’s not going to remember it anyway.” Joe’s a dirtbag and a creep, until one morning after a particularly nasty bender he’s framed for the rape and murder of his ex-wife and wakes up in a private prison cell that’s been (very badly) disguised as a motel room. Joe’s trapped there for twenty years.
And then one day he is released. Dropped into a public park with a fistful of cash and one of them newfangled iPhones, Joe’s told by his anonymous jailer that he has one assignment: come back in a few days explaining who I am and why I did this to you. If you don’t, your daughter will die.
Brolin goes to some seriously scary places here, devolving over the years into a grunting caveman while honing his flabby drunkard body into a leonine killing machine. He comes out as more shark than human, in his first few minutes of freedom thoughtlessly crippling an entire high school football team in what this twisted universe considers a throwaway gag.
Yeah, it’s mean, ugly and super-heroically violent. So I guess it’s still “Oldboy,” and a peculiar movie for Spike Lee.
The most stubbornly (sometimes infuriatingly) idiosyncratic filmmaker we’ve got right now, Spike can seemingly turn any script into “A Spike Lee Joint.” Indeed, the great triumph of his 2006 “Inside Man” was in the ways Spike took a bank-robber potboiler originally written for Ron Howard and infused it with all sorts of loopy, multi-cultural asides and quintessential New York City moments.
You’ll find none of that here. “Oldboy” was shot in New Orleans but everybody speaks NYC street addresses, and it’s the first Spike Lee joint without a particular sense of place. Hell, it’s not even a “joint” anymore – billed in the credits for the first time as “a Spike Lee film.”
He’s a director-for-hire, and he happens to be very good at it. Lee’s been stuck in a rut, feature-wise ever since “Inside Man” (although it’s worth noting that his documentary work has remained quite stellar.) “Miracle At St. Anna” and “Red Hook Summer” were well-meaning disasters, and would be the worst two movies of his career if I could only ever manage to forget that “She Hate Me” was a thing that actually happened.
“Oldboy” is Spike Lee sticking to a script and letting his muscular filmmaking chops speak for themselves. It has been put together with a bristling visual intelligence, and when Brolin goes Hammer Time on dozens of faceless baddies, Spike seems enthralled with the chance to finally direct a balls-to-the-wall action sequence. Who ever knew Mookie was such a chop-socky buff?
There’s an odd collision of tone between the stark emotional realism of Brolin’s low-down growling (alongside predictably fine work from Elizabeth Olsen as his recovering-junkie savior) squared off against all these over-the-top, cartoon character actors. Samuel L. Jackson, a one-time member of Spike’s stock company who has been sadly missing ever since a post-“Jungle Fever” falling-out, triumphantly returns to the fold now sporting a mohawk and invoking the divine with a twelve-letter invective phrase that ranks among the very best of Samuel L. Jackson’s long and storied history of twelve-letter invective phrases in movies.
Mark Protosevich’s screenplay irons out some of the original film’s weirder flourishes. (There’s no hypnosis this time around, guys.) It’s a tighter, leaner movie but in the end it still feels like an assignment. It’s a vicious, nasty little number executed beautifully and this “Oldboy” is probably as good as it can possibly be, missing the shock of the new. I liked this movie fine but I’ll get back to you when I figure out a reason why it exists.