Spike Lee takes revenge on-screen in 'Oldboy'

05:00 AM, Nov 28, 2013

With 'Oldboy,' director Spike Lee reimagines a Korean cult classic. Hilary Bronwyn Gayle, FilmDistrict Pictures/


Written By by Brian Truitt, USA TODAY

Spike Lee’s films are marked by their explorations of social and political issues, but there have been times when something even more visceral shows up: good old-fashioned vengeance.

In his acclaimed 1989 drama Do the Right Thing, for example, an already-tense Brooklyn mob goes into full riot mode after the death of Radio Raheem. And the revenge is really on display, in full bloody glory, in Lee’s latest, Oldboy (in theaters now), based on the 1990s Japanese manga series and 2003 Korean film by Park Chan-wook.

Josh Brolin stars as Joe Doucett, an alcoholic adman who’s held hostage in a mysterious hotel and locked in a room, with a steady stream of dumplings and TV infomercials to maintain a semblance of sanity and connection to the outside world.

When he’s suddenly freed 20 years later, he’s a changed man — emotionally and physically — and he sets out to find his daughter and wreaks havoc with his hands, feet and a hammer until he faces the man who has done this to him.

The original Oldboy is one of Lee’s favorite revenge movies, the filmmaker says, and that kind of film and its themes are a staple in every culture. “You can take it back to the Bible.”

It’s a primal thing, Lee adds. “As human beings, we all have been slighted. Some slights we forget, and some slights we don’t forget (will) hold for 20 or 30 years.”

He remembers a scene from director Barry Levinson’s 1982 drama Diner when one of the main characters jumps on an older man, acting on rancor he has harbored since the third grade.

He just says one day, ‘I’m going to see this guy, and I’m going to make him pay.’ And we can do that. We all hold grudges,” Lee says.

I’m not saying it’s healthy, but as human beings, we do that. There are slights where time heals the wound, and other slights that aren’t going to be healed till you get retribution.”

Oldboy also is the first time Lee, 56, has tackled a remake — or, as he considers the new film, a reinterpretation. As soon as he finished 1986’s She’s Gotta Have It, he recalls, “they wanted me to make the remake right away. Of course, I didn’t want to do that.” (Would he let anybody else remake one of his films? “Not while I’m alive,” he says matter-of-factly.)

After getting the Korean director’s blessing to do Oldboy, Lee and Brolin set out to add their own flourishes — the basic concept, the gut punch of a twist and the dumplings all carry over from the past film, but Lee moves the action from Korea to an unnamed American city as well as tosses in his own style.

The trademark brawl in the 2003 movie between the protagonist and a horde of henchmen movie in a single tight corridor becomes a multilevel affair almost out of a video game. Lee filmed it in one single, three-minute action sequence on ramps at an old New Orleans Navy base.

Every film I do is a learning experience,” he says. “If Kurosawa is in his late 80s and he’s still learning, that’s an eye-opener. We never have an approach where we know it all or have done it all.”

Lee has explored some pretty heady subjects in his career, from interracial relationships (1991’s Jungle Fever) to the civil rights movement (1992’s Malcolm X) to media representations of African Americans (2000’s Bamboozled), and he crafted a trademark vision for his work along the way.

If you were to switch through the channels and fall on a Spike movie, you would know immediately by the color of the film and the angles that are used and maybe by the actors in the film,” says Elizabeth Olsen, who plays a volunteer nurse and confidante for Joe in Oldboy.

That’s important if you’re going to remake such a great film, but also at the same time, you’re telling it to a lot of people who’ve never seen it before.”

Lee was an “intimidating” presence at first for Olsen, until she saw there was a lightness to him.

He’s just a really loving guy with a lot of joy,” the actress says. “He has so much heart. That’s why all of his films, even if they deal with really harsh subjects and crazy images and situations that make you uncomfortable, at the end of the day, all of his characters and films have a huge redeeming quality.”

Sharlto Copley, who stars as Oldboy antagonist Adrian Pryce, also saw a surprising warmth in Lee that belied the subject matter.

There’s a real humanity to the man, and I often found myself wondering why it had come to pass that people with so much humanity and lightness were making a film like this,” Copley says. “Maybe we’re tapping into our dark sides, I don’t know.”

Lee spent a lot of time discussing with Brolin what their own reactions would be to being free from 20 years of imprisonment.

Shockingly, the director and father of two wouldn’t first check to see how his beloved New York Knicks were doing. “Nah,” Lee says with a laugh. “It’d be to see if I had any grandchildren.”