Oldboy — 7/10

OLDBOY (2013, Spike Lee)

“The more things change, the more they stay the same.” — Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, 1849

[spoilers below, even for those who have seen Park’s original]

Though Spike Lee doesn’t really care to do much make-up wise to make Josh Brolin look 20 years older when his character gets released from his captivity, he does enough to show how the world is 20 years older. Seconds after emerging from his box in the field, Brolin finds himself examining an iPhone like Kubrick’s apes examined the monolith. Later in the film, right after questioning Elizabeth Olsen about where all the pay phones are (he still thinks you need to look up restaurants in the yellow pages), there’s a cut to the two of them walking down a street Brolin was on 20 years ago when he purchased a toy duck for his daughter for $5. The same tchotchke stand is there and the toys are still… five dollars.

In Lee’s 2013, Brolin is essentially the same man — haunted by the choices he made decades earlier, fueled by violence and revenge, and easily infuriated. He may not drink anymore and his beer gut has been replaced by a six-pack, but he’s still Joe Doucett, and his daughter Mia is still his daughter, even though she now goes by the name Marie. His best friend Chucky runs the same bar with the same vertical beige blinds on the door, and while 9/11 has happened and there’s a black man in the white house, the sins of the fathers are still passed on to their children. You can trace this message back to several of Lee’s best films — from ancient slavery to modern minstrel shows in BAMBOOZLED, the criminal past of Edward Norton in 25TH HOUR, and even in the cruel father-son relationship on the outskirts of the plot in JUNGLE FEVER.

And it’s this haunting guilt and somber fatalism that makes Lee’s version of this story stand a little apart from Park Chan-wook’s stylish, brilliant work of superficial sadism (aside from some poetic touches about cold and warm hands, Park stayed away from profundity and leaned on visual dynamics). While I think Park’s style was better suited to this material — Lee isn’t quite as comfortable with the near-unbearable graphic violence and queasy stories of mass incest — Spike still has got some game to bring to the party. Along with sharp-eyed DP Sean Bobbitt (12 YEARS A SLAVE) and his long-time editor Barry Brown, Lee has made a nicely-paced and slick-looking thriller; but as usual, there’s more under the hood if you want to look. Sure, a sequence where Brolin single-handedly takes out 40 bad guys with a hammer, or one where he sees his pet mouse and her litter of babies served to him on a sizzling dinner plate would make it tough to see past the pulp. But those familiar with Park’s version will notice the changes here: Joe doesn’t cut his tongue out and get hypnotized into amnesia; he lives with his guilt, goes back into captivity, and spies on his daughter with a conveniently planted camera in her dashboard duck. And no longer is the bad guy the incest-committing brother of the dead schoolgirl from 30 years ago. Now he’s a victim, just like his dead sister, of their monstrous molesting father. The cycle of violence, perpetuated when unchecked. Somebody needs to throw a garbage can through this pizza shop’s window to stop it.

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