Social significance, in a movie directed by Spike Lee, is usually announced by whichever actor is directly facing the camera. You don’t have to search for it, as you do in Oldboy—but then, despite the opening credits, Oldboy is not really “A Spike Lee Film.” It is a remake with a tangled history, in which Lee’s role, though intriguing, is less than authorial.
Perhaps the modesty of his claim to Oldboy is the trait that most distinguishes this film from the 2003 original, which upon its Euro-American premiere, in competition at Cannes, established writer-director Park Chan-wook as the new standard-setter for art-house ultraviolence. Here was the work of an auteur, stamped with an individualistic combination of visual style (lush flamboyance), acting style (a loosely moored expressionism) and theme (the superhuman thrills and bestial lusts of revenge). Although the film had sprung from an existing source—a manga by Garon Tsuchiya and Nobuaki Minegishi—there was no question that this tale of a drunken, irresponsible salaryman, inexplicably abducted and held in solitary confinement for fifteen years and then just as inexplicably released, was “Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy.”
And so it remained in the minds of its fans, when rumors began circulating in 2008 of an American version to be directed by Steven Spielberg, with Will Smith in the lead. While Park’s loyalists groaned on their blogs, the proposed remake got as far as the commissioning of a screenplay by Mark Protosevich, who had previously written I Am Legend as a vehicle for Smith. Then the project stalled, was revived amid chatter about Danny Boyle’s becoming the director, stalled again and at last, in July 2011, emerged as a movie that was most likely going to happen, with Spike Lee hired to direct. The Protosevich screenplay stayed. Smith went, and was replaced by Josh Brolin.
I hope you’re following this, because it probably has more to do with what you now see on the screen than did the translation of Oldboy from Asia to America. Why shouldn’t there be a US Oldboy? Park’s film was already cross-cultural: a Korean movie based on a Japanese comic book, with a repeating line of dialogue borrowed from the poetry of Ella Wheeler Wilcox. No doubt a viewer well versed in Korean history and manners will find resonances in the original Oldboy that are lacking in the new version; but to a large extent the milieu of both films is a contrivance, as goofily generic as the protagonist’s cell, which his captors have designed like a room in a low-budget chain hotel.
For Lee, this undefined, somewhere-in-America setting represents a break with standard practice. He has branded himself as a New York filmmaker, whose hometown locations, sometimes specific down to streetcorner level, vouch for the authenticity of his characters. Now he’s accepted the challenge of making situations seem persuasive and significant within the dowdier downtown quarters and outlying neighborhoods of Baltimore, or Hartford, or maybe St. Louis. (Actually, it’s New Orleans—but to know that, you’d probably have to look it up.) Out where the narrative air is thin, Lee has to struggle to connect events to any but the largest and crudest meanings. When it comes to being persuasive, though, he turns out to be as adept as an old-time, studio-bound contract director.
He moves easily among the several registers of filmmaking that Oldboy demands. There is sardonic grotesquerie—a frequent enough effect in Lee’s films—in the scenes in the hotel room cell, where the camera repeatedly lingers over a hideous poster of a Negro bellhop and is often noticeably distanced from Brolin. (Lee is so determined to emphasize the uncanniness of the experience, rather than its claustrophobia, that you sometimes wonder how he could have backed up far enough to get the shot.) At other times, when emotional depths have to open, the walls drop away entirely, as Brolin and his post-captivity companion (Elizabeth Olsen, playing a fragile young social services worker) find themselves standing as if hypnotized in scenes from a guilt-laden past. Lee also has resources for occasions when the moodiness has to be retained but momentum is required to push the story along. He deploys rain-soaked crane shots, which feel at once beautifully smooth and ominously obsessive, or jostles you through a montage that’s as frenetic as Brolin’s disordered thoughts.
And then there are the set pieces of bloody mayhem, something new for Lee. In the biggest of them, a martial arts battle in a parking garage, he imitates Park directly, and even expands on him, with daredevil brio. Elsewhere, Lee works some gruesomely effective changes on Park, for example by adding a boxcutter to the claw hammer in the protagonist’s impromptu tool kit. With Park’s most notoriously sick-making stunt, Lee hangs back, providing a teasing glimpse of a baby octopus while leaving the creature unmolested in its tank, but for all that, I’d say he takes to the violence with real appetite.
So does Josh Brolin, who clearly hungered for this role and makes a thorough meal of it. A box-faced pretty-boy actor who is utterly without vanity, specializing in high school football-hero types decayed into a desperate and often boozy adulthood, Brolin plays his early scenes with unembarrassed loutishness (think of a beefcake Homer Simpson, lacking sweetness and Marge), passes convincingly and almost wordlessly through a wild-man phase and emerges from captivity as a sinewy, crop-haired killing machine. His skill in the fight choreography is impressive; but the real power of his acting is better summarized in a pair of smiles he gives in close-up. The first comes when he sees an image of his daughter and beams with such uncontainable wonder that you’d think his face would burst from within. The second emerges when he’s doling out pain after his release from the cell and pauses before fully dispatching a victim, giving out a chuckle that says so much more about relief than pleasure that it might as well be a sigh.
That said, what can anyone gain from watching Oldboy, beyond some visceral excitement? Part of the answer comes from Protosevich, whose script changes the ending of Park’s film to bring this Oldboy to a more logical and also more punitive conclusion. Brolin’s character apparently has earned perpetual suffering for belonging to a category of men who get away with being loud, uncaring and rude by virtue of wearing a suit to work. Lee’s contribution to this theme, made mostly through the casting and that bellhop poster, is to narrow the focus implicitly to loud, uncaring, rude businessmen who are white. The word “reparations” even comes up at one point, which is as close as Oldboy ever gets to speaking a message into the camera.
Fair enough. Yet if the wish fulfillment of Oldboy is to be taken as social criticism, I have to say that the target is as all-purpose as the setting. Compare the fantasy of retribution here with the one in J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost, in which the figure who must be beaten down is not a flailing, mid-level, financially pressed jerk but a supremely competent gentleman, worthy of being embodied by Robert Redford and wealthy enough that he presumably captains large business enterprises as well as a yacht. He, too, is gradually stripped of everything—implacably, almost wordlessly, while confined alone on a single set—so that he may in the end deserve a glimmer of redemption.
If Oldboy is more vulgarly appealing than All Is Lost, it’s not just because the latter is a very wet film with a very dry method. It’s because the Oldboy team, Lee included, has brought retribution and sympathy to the kind of guy who has far less power than a Skipper Redford but is far more commonly encountered. Brolin may represent the wrong stratum of capitalism for real social criticism, but he’s the right source for everyday outrage. That’s his convenience as the object of your attention, and his insignificance.