Spike’s “Oldboy” is Great Art

If you like crazy in your coffee, try “Oldboy.” It’s art.

The original 2003 Korean “Oldboy” and the new Spike Lee remake both have a brilliant and intriguing opening act, and hammer killings. They have the most evil twist ending I’ve ever seen, and I watched all the old “Twilight Zone” episodes. I defy anyone to watch either flick and say they saw that coming.

If you haven’t seen “Oldboy,” you might still agree it’s crazy, because you might know the Virginia Tech killer took his own photo posed with a hammer like the poster of the original “Oldboy,” and sent it to media outlets. This is interesting in the context of how truly dark the violence and psychology of “Oldboy” becomes.

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Let’s leave it there.

There are flashes of goofy old Kung Fu movies in the first act of Spike’s “Oldboy,” when the main character, Doucett, is locked in a creepy hotel room for 20 years. There’s a TV, a poster of a bellhop, some unconvincing wallpaper, and not much else. Bad Chinese food is delivered daily, but Doucett doesn’t get to leave or talk to anyone. He knows he’s being watched. He goes nuts, then he gets a grip by exercising and writing letters to his daughter.

He gets out, unexpectedly, and tests the fighting skills he learned emulating those movies on a gang of douchey jocks. He brutalizes them. Later, in a single long shot without an apparent cut, he fights dozens of goons in two hallways and beats them all down with a hammer and their own weapons. He spins around them, grabbing their knives and bats and stabbing or pummeling them. It’s cool.

Not as cool, but definitely scary in the perfect way, is Sharlto Copley as the villain, Adrian, who locked Doucett up for so long. He is RIDICULOUS. It’s tempting to decide Copley’s overdoing it by being so weird, but he’s not. You can’t overdo a character with this guy’s background, going to these insanely extravagant lengths for revenge.

“Oldboy” flashes back occasionally, but Spike takes the present-tense characters into the flashbacks with us, so they’re like Scrooge watching Christmases past, invisible. One truly surreal scene shows Adrian and Doucett watching Adrian’s father move from room to room, blowing away every member of his family with a shotgun. Both kids (Adrian and his sister) eagerly offer up sex before they’re blasted. The dad concludes his rampage by shooting off the back of his own head while past and present Adrian both watch. The cinematography, with the shot following the dad around the house like it’s a third-person video game, is excellent work by Spike.

I’m not gonna give away the twist, partly because I don’t want to even write the words, but I am gonna give away the very last scene, so . . . .

. . . . Doucett is back in the room, presumably until he dies. He’s happy. It’s satisfying for us and him because this is exactly what he deserves. He wasn’t just bad, he was truly horrible—disgusting to his family and at work; so drunk he wound up puking on himself in the gutter.

Josh Brolin nails the drunk scenes. He checked into rehab for alcoholism around the time “Oldboy” came out. This is interesting in the context of how an actor can channel his own demons into a great performance. Let’s leave it there.

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When I told my wife how much I enjoyed Spike’s “Oldboy,” she said “You like everything.” I heard the same thing from colleagues when I was reviewing movies for the newspaper. I like a lot more movies than the general criticsphere, that’s true. But that’s because most critics have grown full of themselves and forgotten what art is.

Movie (and, worse, TV) critics all over the internet watch something, make a quick decision about it, and then work to convince readers certain things they didn’t like make a movie bad. I read these guys every day, and I’m jealous and bored and fascinated.

It’s easy to decide “Oldboy” is too violent or gross or overacted or whatever. But it’s a movie that wants to blow our minds and succeeds, whether you “like” what you’re seeing or not. Spike Lee is an artist, and he’s not boring, and I love that.

You know what isn’t art? You know a movie I didn’t like? It’s also newly out on DVD. “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” was beloved by the critics, but it’s the opposite of art. It’s pure product. We’ll come back to this.

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