I suppose it makes sense from a marketing mind-set that Spike Lee’s “Oldboy” is sneaking into town without benefit of screenings for all but mainstream outlets. Since the film’s a “reinterpretation” of a 2003 South Korean film of the same name by the highly regarded Park Chan-wook — a surreally chilly masterpiece of crime and extreme vengeance — the thinking must be that the cultier critics who most value Park’s gifts will reject the new film out of hand.
Whether that thinking’s correct is beside the point. Lee’s “Oldboy” stands on its own. It just stands a bit shorter.
Spike’s a divisive figure as a filmmaker and a public personality, and his movies blow hot (“Do the Right Thing,” “25th Hour”), cold (“Red Hook Summer,” “Miracle at St. Anna”), and crazy (“Bamboozled”). But 2006’s “Inside Man” was a reminder that he could do a straight genre picture just fine, and “Oldboy” proves the point once more. It’s a propulsive, ultra-violent, often mesmerizing thriller, made with a crudeness that’s intentional and occasionally artful.
And it has Josh Brolin, which counts for a lot. Unlike the protagonist of Park’s “Oldboy,” a random executive taken prisoner by a mysterious villain, Brolin’s Joe Doucett starts the film as a full-on creep: a blowhard failure of an ad salesman with anger issues and a raging alcohol problem. He has plenty of enemies, so what Lee’s version loses in Kafkaesque horror it at least makes up in sense. After Joe botches a pitch and goes on a self-pity bender, he wakes up in a motel room with no exit. He’s kept there for two decades, the culture spinning forward through the years on his TV.
By the time he’s released — just as mysteriously — Joe has gone through insanity and come out the other side into a weird ninja purity. His wife has been murdered, he has been framed, and his daughter (Elvy Yost) has been raised by foster parents. Only an old friend (Michael Imperioli) and a sympathetic young social worker named Marie (Elizabeth Olsen) give him the time of day. His enigmatic captor only wants to be found.
When I reviewed the original “Oldboy” back in 2005, I noted that Park owed a sizable debt to Hitchcock by way of Brian DePalma. The new “Oldboy” has those same allegiances, right down to the swirling camerawork and composer Roque Baños’s Herrmannesque stylings on the soundtrack. A number of plot aspects have been changed but the essential thrust remains the same, with the shellshocked antihero plowing through all obstacles on his way to a horrific reckoning.
Along the way he tangles with a gold-mohawked Samuel L. Jackson, an effete Sharlto Copley (“District 9”), and a long hallway of henchmen dispatched in a single-take fury that is Lee’s one bended-knee acknowledgment to Park’s original. This “Oldboy” isn’t for the squeamish either, but where the first movie possessed an elegant and all-encompassing nihilism that raised it above convention, the remake becomes more genre-bound as it goes.
The best thing in it is Brolin, neatly balancing brute force and vulnerability, sorrow and divine wrath, as a hulking pawn in a game much bigger than he guesses. Still, this “Oldboy” deserves better than the drubbing the culties and fanboys are probably going to give it, not to mention the lack of attention it’ll get from everyone else. If Park’s film is the work of a brilliant but soulless surgeon, Lee’s remake is that of a gifted provocateur amusing himself until the next real thing comes around.