I wrestled quite a bit with the original Oldboy – Park Chan-wook’s dishonest exercise in revenge shock – but no such struggle was necessary for Spike Lee’s remake. This is pure camp, and difficult to take seriously in any way at all.
The story is essentially the same: drunken lout Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) wakes up from a bender to discover he’s been imprisoned in a mysterious hotel room. He’s kept there for 20 years, then one day inexplicably released and given a trail of bread crumbs that could potentially lead to his anonymous captor.
Aside from a few idiosyncratic touches – including an imaginary bellhop (Cinque Lee) who appears in Joe’s bedroom – Lee plays it straight for the movie’s opening section. It isn’t until Joe is freed that the two pictures really start to diverge. Whereas Park went full-throttle with the explicitness and preposterousness of the story (giving his film an aesthetic sense of conviction, if nothing else), Lee seems to be recreating the shock moments out of a sense of duty. The gore is here, but not the spirit. I can’t decide if that makes this a worse Oldboy than Park’s, but it certainly doesn’t make it a better one.
Lee seems to be recreating the shock moments out of duty more than anything else.
Things start to go off the rails about the time Samuel L. Jackson shows up with a dyed-blond tuft of hair on his otherwise bald head. Despite the ostentatious look, Jackson oddly underplays his scenes, even when he’s being tortured by Brolin (he seems mildly annoyed, if that). The silliness piles up from there. Elizabeth Olsen has the thankless part of Marie, a nurse who befriends Joe and inexplicably tags along on his increasingly insane vengeance scheme, against all sense and logic. After nearly being raped by thugs on Joe’s trail, what does she say to him? “I’m glad you’re here.”
If the movie has a fatal, campy flaw, however, it’s Sharlto Copley. He plays the mastermind behind Joe’s misery (don’t worry, the movie reveals this early on) and it’s hard to find a way to capture the essence of his performance. Imagine, maybe, a Bond villain under the direction of Corky St. Clair. Copley speaks in a squeaky voice with an indeterminate accent and sports the sort of manicured beard that would be more at home in a Hunger Games movie. He’s also so generous with his hand gestures that when he makes death threats, it seems like he’s giving orders for how the furniture should be moved around.
Oldboy leads up to one of those ludicrous finales in which the villain triumphantly explains the details of his entire scheme (the movie’s big, perverse reveal has to do with why Copley’s character let Joe go). Copley caps it off with what can only be called a cackle. Brolin responds with a terribly awkward howl. All I could muster was a laugh.