Spike Lee and Company Tell How Their ‘Oldboy’ Brings New Twists to Old Tricks

Bryan Enk
Movie Talk

One of the more intriguing offerings of this year's fall film season is "Oldboy," the new American version of Park Chan-wook's now-classic Korean thriller that puts Josh Brolin on what's often referred to in the movies as a "roaring rampage of revenge."

Interestingly billed as "A Spike Lee Film" (rather than "A Spike Lee Joint"), "Oldboy" tells the tale of Joe Doucett (Brolin), a man who's imprisoned in a makeshift hotel room for two decades ... and is then just as inexplicably released. Traversing a much-changed world as a dude long thought dead, Joe descends into the criminal underworld in search of answers ... and soon discovers that his existential nightmare has really only just begun.

One might wonder why "Oldboy" needs a retelling, though director Spike Lee puts some perspective on this right away in our exclusive featurette as he reminds us that the story indeed started out as a Japanese manga (written by Nobuaki Minegishi and Garon Tsuchiya and first serialized from 1996 through 1998). However, Chan-wook's 2003 film was only loosely based on that source material, and Lee's film admittedly seems heavily influenced by its cinematic predecessor ... while still having a few new tricks of its own.

Chan-wook's "Oldboy" earned quite a reputation for its shocking and subversive material, including a scene in which our tortured hero Dae-su Oh (Min-sik Choi) ravenously eats a live squid and another in which he performs crude, impromptu oral surgery on one of his nemeses. Lee's "Oldboy" seems aware that it has to at least try to go even more extreme, even if it's something as relatively simple as increasing Joe's prison term to 20 years (Dae-su Oh's was 15).

Like Dae-su Oh before him, Joe looks to eventually spend his prison term strengthening his body (if not his mind), going through "imaginary training" that turns him into a one-man lethal weapon. However, when Joe is first released from prison, Lee's film goes for an even more surreal situation than its predecessor.

In the original film, Dae-su Oh springs forth from a large trunk on top of a roof garden, where he tells his tale to a suicidal man and his pet poodle. In Lee's film, Joe, equipped with sunglasses to shield his eyes from the natural light he hasn't seen in two decades, is released in an actual field, where his first human contact in 20 years looks to be a mysterious woman sporting an umbrella decorated with the "scratch-off years" markings that Dae-su Oh had on his arm.

Josh Brolin stars in 'Oldboy'
Josh Brolin stars in 'Oldboy'

That seems to be what the new "Oldboy" has to offer: notable twists and variations on still-recognizable scenes. Joe indeed wields a hammer early on in the video, though that doesn't look to be his weapon of choice during the fight scene where he takes on seemingly dozens of foes (one of the original film's most famous sequences due to being presented as one master shot with no cuts).

Joe also straps an enemy (played by Samuel L. Jackson, reuniting with Spike Lee for the first time since 1991's "Jungle Fever") to a chair, though it looks like he'll be performing something other than amateur dentistry on him. And Joe's relationship with Marie (played by Elizabeth Olsen) is shrouded in mystery ... which makes us wonder if Lee is indeed going to "go there" the way Chan-wook did (those who saw the original film know what we're talking about).

Whether it ends up being a pale imitation of its predecessor or a powerful pulp revenge fantasy that stands on its own, "Oldboy" is pretty much a must-see if only because ... well, we want to know which one it is. Either way, it's nice to see Spike Lee working with a decent budget and resources (it's probably safe to say that it's his slickest-looking film since his 2006 genre mini-masterpiece, "Inside Man") ... and we can't wait to see what "Elysium" and "District 9" star Sharlto Copley does with his villain role. The creepiest psycho since Kevin Spacey's turn as John Doe in "Se7en"? Copley's definitely got it in him.

"Oldboy" opens November 27.