By Max Nelson
Dir. Spike Lee, U.S., Film District
Only so much can be done with the source material for Spike Leeâ€™s new film. Repellent and deeply stupid, Park Chan-Wookâ€™s decade-old revenge thriller Oldboy is too high on its own bad-boy attitude to be genuinely shocking, and too mean-spirited and bullying toward its audience to be truly enjoyable. Stylistically, itâ€™s an attractive but weightless movie-as-video-game; conceptually, itâ€™s a would-be classical tragedy (complete with inadvertent incest and subsequent self-mutilation) that, by withholding its key revelations until the last act for the sake of a twist ending, collapses the ironic distance between audience and hero that keeps classical tragedies running. And while the use of family tragedy and/or domestic abuse for dramatic effect is par for the course among thrillersâ€”some of them very goodâ€”Oldboyâ€™s puerile need to rub its viewersâ€™ faces in human misery is pitiable at best and unconscionable at worst. (By comparison, Parkâ€™s English-language debut Stoker was a lurid American gothic and explicit riff on Shadow of a Doubt, that, critically, had a developed sense of humor.)
The plot, which Park adapted from a manga by Garon Tsuchiya and Nobuaki Minegishi: a callous businessman is abducted and locked up without explanation in a dingy hotel room for nearly two decades, during which time heâ€™s framed for the brutal murder of his ex-wife. Eventually, he is released and given two daysâ€”with his daughterâ€™s life hanging in the balanceâ€”to figure out who imprisoned him. There follows an extended series of tortures, hammerings, stabbings, beatings, and at least one sexual assault, each leading straight into the next at a steady, empathy-numbing beat. For all its last-act sermonizing about justice and fate and its over-literalization of Biblical metaphors (â€śif thy tongue causes thee to sinâ€¦â€ť), the original movie was essentially amoral: human life was fast, cheap, and ugly, with individuals bouncing pinball-like through the world and colliding violently with every nearby surface.
This is at least partially foreign territory for Spike Lee, the improbable director of this yearâ€™s American Oldboy remake. Eruptions of bottled-up rage and spontaneous acts of violence might be among Leeâ€™s specialties, but they tend to be inspired by a kind of righteous anger directed at or generated by social structures, institutions, and ideologies. That isnâ€™t to say that thereâ€™s no space in Leeâ€™s body of work for conflicts between individuals, just that his violence is usually motivated by forces wider and deeper than crude payback or personal offense. Accordingly, Lee does make occasional stabs at reframing the original Oldboyâ€™s constant, near-senseless abuse in terms of class and (especially) raceâ€”although he also understands how little the movieâ€™s premise can stretch beyond its own self-imposed limits.
In the new film, wronged man Joe Doucett is played lumberingly by an always glowering Josh Brolin. Heâ€™s a boorish advertising exec who loses a crucial deal when he tries to pick up his wealthy potential clientâ€™s wife, and this white manâ€™s aggressively tense rapport with his African-American client anticipates the current of economic and/or racial competitiveness that runs through nearly every relationship in the film. His nemesis turns out to be an effete, sneering billionaire (Sharlto Copley) whose wealth is more a matter of bloodline than merit: a late-film flashback to a childhood trauma comes off as a cartoonish vision of white privilege gone violently berserk. Leeâ€™s most dramatic attempt to refocus his source material is an icky take on one of the storyâ€™s most prolonged torture scenes: Brolin binds up his former jailor (Samuel L. Jackson), carves slices of skin from the manâ€™s throat and pours salt into the wounds. It might not be an especially subtle take on the relationship of racial difference to the exercise of powerâ€”Doucett is, quite literally, changing his victimâ€™s skin color by forceâ€”but it does raise the stakes of the scene to a point where the violence canâ€™t be accounted for by bloodlust alone.
That aside, Leeâ€™s Oldboy is mostly content to work as an efficient, businesslike, and technically accomplished Hollywood thriller. The new film dispenses with some of the originalâ€™s worst excesses: there is, thankfully, no tongue-severing here, nor does Doucett ever devour a live octopus like his predecessor. (In one of the filmâ€™s best moments, he strolls into a Chinese restaurant, takes one lingering look at the octopus tank and briskly moves on. You can hear Lee muttering, â€śnot in this movieâ€¦â€ť) Lee carries over Parkâ€™s showy, Xbox-inspired style when necessaryâ€”the iconic scene in which our hero dispatches dozens of armed henchmen with a single hammer plays out in smooth, fluid tracking shots across three consecutive stories of a warehouse like a video-game avatar graduating to more advanced levelsâ€”and tones it down when possible. The result is tightly constructed but ultimately a little airless: there are, for instance, a handful of spontaneous, lively moments between Brolinâ€™s hero and Elizabeth Olsenâ€™s junkie-turned-social worker, butâ€”despite Olsenâ€™s best effortsâ€”the latter character never blossoms into more than a type: the fallen woman with a heart of gold. On the whole, Oldboy has little of the self-generating forward momentum that set apart Inside Man, Leeâ€™s previous foray into big-budget Hollywood action moviemaking. If that film was a prolonged sprint, this one is closer to a sped-up ride on a moving sidewalk.
Last year, Lee made Red Hook Summer, a haphazard, tonally unpredictable, andâ€”for my moneyâ€”revelatory movie. It was a reminder that Lee is at his best when heâ€™s struggling to reconcile his deeply conflicted feelings toward his material: in that filmâ€™s case, African-American Baptist religious experience, digital filmmaking, and Red Hook itself, all of which Lee approached with a mix of reverence, skepticism, and, in the end, profound affection. In comparison, the problem with Oldboy isnâ€™t the sense that Lee doesnâ€™t have a similar stake in the material, but rather that heâ€™s too sincere a filmmaker for a subject about which he can only muster up professional duty and workmanlike skill. Great genre directors tend to be both detached technicians and arch manipulators: they need to make us care about the fate of characters they themselves can perhaps only see as puppets or pawns. If Leeâ€™s Oldboy is a failure, itâ€™s at least an accidental mark of its makerâ€™s integrity: the work of a director too honest, open, frank and morally committed, at least in this case, for his own good.