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Thursday, Dec. 12, 2013 12:01 am

Spike Lee delivers twisted noir with Oldboy

 

While directors M. Night Shyamalan (Remember him? The Sixth Sense ring a bell?) and Spike Lee have both had to abandon their independent ways and have essentially become filmmakers for hire, at the very least you can say that the latter has managed to inject a bit of his unique style into the studio projects he takes on. As for the former, take on look at After Earth from earlier this year and you can see what a by-the-numbers director he’s become.

Lee knows his film, as well as genre history, both of which hold him in good stead with his latest Oldboy, a remake of a cult movie from South Korea, known for its excessive brand of violence, as well as perverse plot twists. These two elements remain in this redo but the director takes a more economical approach where the narrative is concerned, resulting in a taut film noir exercise that manages to trick the audience into thinking the main character has hit rock bottom where his personal despair is concerned, only to see him fall even further.

Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) is the man in question and he’s so bad, you can’t even get away with calling him an anti-hero. A womanizer and alcoholic, he goes on a massive bender after losing a major client for the advertising firm he works for. He never makes it home but not because he ends up dead in a gutter, rather he’s kidnapped and wakes up in a hotel room where he’s being held captive. There’s no phone, only a cross on the wall, a Bible and set of encyclopedias to read, a TV to watch and an Andrew Wyeth painting in the window to provide a faux landscape. He’s fed Chinese dumplings everyday, along with a bottle of vodka and over the course of his stay he experiences rage, denial and depression, attempts suicide and finally decides to improve his body and mind hoping to be released one day. Miraculously after 20 years, he’s set free with some money and a cellphone and immediately sets out to find whom his captors were and exact his own brand of vengeance.

Though it’s saddled with showing Doucett’s lengthy incarceration, the film moves at a brisk pace and is engaging from the very first frame to the last thanks to Brolin’s fine work. Even when his character is deplorable, the actor keeps us engaged due to his intense engagement in the role, which is an interesting high-wire act; though Doucett changes, Brolin doesn’t let us forget that there’s a lost and damaged soul at the core that can never be fully trusted. He’s ably supported by Elizabeth Olson as an equally troubled nurse who repeatedly comes to his aid, Samuel L. Jackson as one of the men who holds some key information and Sharlto Copley as a man from Doucett’s past who is the key to this mystery.

Be forewarned that this pulp noir is not for the squeamish. It takes the genre convention of the doomed man who cannot escape his fate to the most perverse level. Be that as it may, it’s good to see Lee push the narrative envelope, as well as deliver something I never thought I’d see again – a two and half minute fight scene, in which Doucett takes out 25 of his enemies, all in a single take. No spastic cutting here, no fear of experiencing a seizure, simply good old-fashioned barebones filmmaking. If anything, being able to see this piece of incredible choreography captured purely and in its entirety is worth the price of admission.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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