TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Spike Lee's new theatrical feature is an unusual one for him, a remake of the South Korean revenge film "Oldboy." Lee's version stars Josh Brolin as an ad executive who's mysteriously held captive for two decades, and Elizabeth Olsen as the young woman who comes to his aid. Film critic David Edelstein has a review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Spike Lee's movies carry the label a Spike Lee joint, but "Oldboy" doesn't. He calls it a Spike Lee film, which my guess is Lee's way of saying he's a gun for hire, and that after a line of box-office failures and difficulty getting financing for personal projects, he can make a fast, violent action thriller.
And as it happens, he can - a more than decent one. But this is also the first time I've come out of a Spike Lee film, bad or good, and not known why it had to be made. It's brutal, effective and utterly without urgency.
Obviously the chief reason it's impersonal is that it's a remake of a 2003 film by the South Korean provocateur Park Chan-wook. Both versions center on a mean, violent man who's unexplainably kidnapped and held prisoner in a small room for years - 15 in the original, 20 in the remake.
Then he's unexplainably released and sets out to get revenge, though he first has to figure out the explanation for his captivity. What's even more unexplainable is that the man behind his ordeal appears to be steering him toward the truth.
To help explain the theme, I need to put the plot in the context of Park Chan-wook's other work. Revenge is central to his films. He understands the Western obsession with an eye for an eye - or an eye, nose and teeth for an eye. But he shoots his bloodbaths with morbid detachment. He mucks up the one-to-one correspondence between tit and tat. His "Oldboy" is unspeakably cruel, but it's all of a piece.
Spike Lee's moral universe is more orderly, which can be taken as a compliment. My guess is that what drew him to "Oldboy" is the chance to spell out the decadence and vileness of the prep school elite to which the protagonist belongs. He's named Joe Doucett and played by Josh Brolin, and unlike his South Korean counterpart, he's unusually unmagnetic, an apelike brute. Brolin is best when he wakes up in his room/cage with a slot in the door for food.
Joe's only company is a TV, and Brolin's reaction to what he sees is unhinged, feral and very moving. His ex-wife has been murdered, he was framed, and his little daughter is up for adoption. When Joe wakes up free by the side of the road, he wastes no time in beating up some athletes who hassle him; he appears to kill one, though that's not confirmed.
His only allies are a bar owner and old classmate, played by Michael Imperioli, and a do-gooder named Marie, played by Elizabeth Olsen. After Marie treats him for exhaustion, she finds a stash of letters he wrote over two decades to the daughter he barely knew.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "OLDBOY")
JOHN BROLIN: (as Joe) You read them? You read my letters? You had no right. Who are you?
ELIZABETH OLSEN: (as Marie) Your friend Chucky called me, said you were in really bad shape.
BROLIN: (as Joe) I'm all right now so you can get out of here.
OLSEN: (as Marie) No. You're far from all right.
BROLIN: (as Joe) What are you doing here?
OLSEN: (as Marie) I apologize for reading your letters.
BROLIN: (as Joe) You didn't call the police?
OLSEN: (as Marie) No, I didn't.
BROLIN: (as Joe) Why?
OLSEN: (as Marie) I believe you.
BROLIN: (as Joe) Why?
OLSEN: (as Marie) I believe that you have been locked up for a long time.
BROLIN: (as Joe) (Unintelligible) don't touch me! (as Joe) What if I thought you knew too much, huh? Read my letters. What if I felt like I needed to kill you right now?
OLSEN: (as Marie) Then I suppose I'd be dead. Joe, please take your hands off me.
EDELSTEIN: Elizabeth Olsen isn't particularly effective, which is a surprise. I just saw her in a miserable Off Broadway production of "Romeo and Juliet," and she was terrific. She has classical chops, and her face, with its wide planes, is arresting. But Spike Lee can't make Marie's growing intimacy with the damaged Joe credible.
The rest of the cast is no more memorable, though South African actor Sharlto Copley has moments as a histrionic stranger. The violence, meanwhile, is extreme - lots of computer-generated blood and brain matter, most of it gratuitous.
Lee does best with some well-choreographed hand-to-hand fight scenes between Joe and hordes of bad guys shot in fluid single takes. The fights are spare but elegant - unlike, say, Quentin Tarantino's elaborate ballets in his revenge film, "Kill Bill."
Lee and Tarantino lobbed public insults at each other over "Jackie Brown" and more recently "Django Unchained," and it could be that's the best reason in Lee's mind to remake "Oldboy." Like his protagonist, Lee's looking to show up his adversary - to get his own brand of revenge.
GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine.