Dead Again
By Max Nelson

Dir. Spike Lee, U.S., Film District

Only so much can be done with the source material for Spike Lee’s new film. Repellent and deeply stupid, Park Chan-Wook’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, it’s an attractive but weightless movie-as-video-game; conceptually, it’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 thrillers—some of them very good—Oldboy’s puerile need to rub its viewers’ faces in human misery is pitiable at best and unconscionable at worst. (By comparison, Park’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 he’s framed for the brutal murder of his ex-wife. Eventually, he is released and given two days—with his daughter’s life hanging in the balance—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 (“if thy tongue causes thee to sin…”), 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 year’s American Oldboy remake. Eruptions of bottled-up rage and spontaneous acts of violence might be among Lee’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 isn’t to say that there’s no space in Lee’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 Oldboy’s constant, near-senseless abuse in terms of class and (especially) race—although he also understands how little the movie’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. He’s a boorish advertising exec who loses a crucial deal when he tries to pick up his wealthy potential client’s wife, and this white man’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. Lee’s most dramatic attempt to refocus his source material is an icky take on one of the story’s most prolonged torture scenes: Brolin binds up his former jailor (Samuel L. Jackson), carves slices of skin from the man’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 power—Doucett is, quite literally, changing his victim’s skin color by force—but it does raise the stakes of the scene to a point where the violence can’t be accounted for by bloodlust alone.

That aside, Lee’s Oldboy is mostly content to work as an efficient, businesslike, and technically accomplished Hollywood thriller. The new film dispenses with some of the original’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 film’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, “not in this movie…”) Lee carries over Park’s showy, Xbox-inspired style when necessary—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 levels—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 Brolin’s hero and Elizabeth Olsen’s junkie-turned-social worker, but—despite Olsen’s best efforts—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, Lee’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, and—for my money—revelatory movie. It was a reminder that Lee is at his best when he’s struggling to reconcile his deeply conflicted feelings toward his material: in that film’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 isn’t the sense that Lee doesn’t have a similar stake in the material, but rather that he’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 Lee’s Oldboy is a failure, it’s at least an accidental mark of its maker’s integrity: the work of a director too honest, open, frank and morally committed, at least in this case, for his own good.