Brutal Violence, Yet Restraint Too

Josh Brolin in Spike Lee's "Oldboy." | HILARY BRONWYN GAYLE

Josh Brolin in Spike Lee's “Oldboy.” | HILARY BRONWYN GAYLE

BY STEVE ERICKSON | This may be a perverse statement, but Spike Lee’s talents might have thrived under the discipline of the classical Hollywood studio system. Of course, racism would have kept him outside their gates were he an adult in the 1950s or ‘60s — the first studio film directed by an African-American was made in 1970 — and making a film as radical as his masterpiece “Do the Right Thing” then would have been impossible. However, over the past 15 years, Lee’s talents have thrived when doing adaptations and genre films (“25th Hour,” “Inside Man”) and faltered on “personal” projects.

“Bamboozled,” his ambitious exploration of the long-term legacy of minstrel shows on American pop culture, is politically admirable, but as a narrative, it’s a mess. It probably would have made a better documentary. Lee’s work hasn’t been helped by his frequent tendencies toward sermonizing and bloated running times.

“Oldboy,” a remake of Korean director Park Chan-wook’s film of the same name, tests my theory. It’s an unconventional action film whose closest American kin might be Christopher Nolan’s “Memento.” It doesn’t all work, but it’s fascinatingly conflicted.

Spike Lee adaptation of Korean action film, not completely successful, offers fascinating moments

Advertising executive Joe (Josh Brolin) goes on a drunken spree one night and wakes up in a hotel room that’s really a prison. He’s kept there for 20 years, fed a diet of vodka (although he gives up drinking halfway through) and Chinese dumplings. His only companion is his TV set. Upon release, he stumbles back to a city and meets a friendly social worker (Elizabeth Olsen) with a similar pattern of addiction in her past. Given a cell phone, he gets weird calls about his daughter from a man (Sharlto Copley) whom he eventually meets and who seems to be manipulating his life, even outside the hotel, and holding his daughter captive.

Lee doesn’t overdo stylized direction here, as he sometimes does. Visually, “Oldboy” is most notable for its saturated colors and its anonymous urban setting. While it was made in New Orleans, it could pass for New York. “Oldboy” was shot on a mix of film formats, including 35mm, 16mm, and even Super 8. There’s a dreamlike quality to Lee’s direction, which is implicit in the hotel room layout and explicit in the way flashbacks are staged, with present-day characters standing in the same room with their past selves and watching their actions unfold.

“Oldboy” is Lee’s most violent film, with brutal rape and torture scenes. In interviews, he’s talked about his desire to bring a sense of real-life consequences to movie violence. That’s also implicit in Park Chan-wook’s work, particularly his trilogy about revenge (“Oldboy” is its middle entry.)

Park’s “Oldboy” is memorable for its narrative twists and two iconic scenes. In the first, the protagonist eats a live octopus. This scene is not faked. In the second, he faces a gang of thugs, armed only with a hammer, and defeats them. Lee did not reproduce the octopus scene (the closing credits offer the usual disclaimer about no animals being harmed in the making of the film), but he does remake the hammer scene. It’s the closest he’s ever come to straightforward action filmmaking.

“Oldboy” feels both attracted and repulsed by its tawdry subject matter and comic book origins. For once, Lee steps off the soapbox. Even so, he manages to deliver a subtle message about the lifelong impact of bullying. The film’s split between brains and gore is embodied in Brolin’s performance. Joe has two moods: quiet despair and total rage. When he’s not silent, he’s attacking someone, with whatever weapon he can find. In the film’s first third, Brolin’s work seems awfully bombastic. After Joe stops drinking, Brolin’s performance becomes a bit more measured and believable. Still, it’s tempting to imagine Jason Statham or direct-to-video star Scott Adkins in the role.

For a mainstream American release, “Oldboy” is remarkably dark. It subverts the usual tropes of the revenge drama, like the quest for redemption by reconnecting with family. Joe does give up drinking — it’s hard to imagine any contemporary Hollywood film depicting an alcoholic who’s incapable of conquering their addiction — but in the long run, that doesn’t guarantee his mental safety. The film holds the pulpier elements of its narrative at arm’s length, though, and seems quite self-conscious about the need to push as far as Park Chan-wook’s film did.

While not exactly an arthouse version of “Oldboy,” it does aim to play both Soho and Times Square. That gives it more freedom than most American films. I’m not completely enamored of it, but there’s nothing else like it in the multiplex.

OLDBOY | Directed by Spike Lee | Film District | Citywide |