Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Movie Review: Robocop

Directed by:  José Padilha.
Written by: Joshua Zetumer based on the screenplay by Edward Neumeier & Michael Miner.
Starring: Joel Kinnaman (Alex Murphy / RoboCop), Gary Oldman (Dr. Dennett Norton), Michael Keaton (Raymond Sellars), Abbie Cornish (Clara Murphy), Jackie Earle Haley (Rick Mattox), Michael K. Williams (Jack Lewis), Jennifer Ehle (Liz Kline), Jay Baruchel (Tom Pope), Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Chief Karen Dean), Samuel L. Jackson (Pat Novak), Aimee Garcia (Jae Kim), Douglas Urbanski (Mayor Durant), John Paul Ruttan (David Murphy), Patrick Garrow  (Antoine Vallon), K.C. Collins (Andre Daniels), Daniel Kash (John Lake), Zach Grenier (Senator Hubert Dreyfuss).

I have to give the makers of the Robocop remake some credit – they really do try to update Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 film in a new and interesting way. Verhoeven’s film is probably his best American effort – a near perfect blend of action, sci-fi, satire, comedy, politics, extreme violence and state of the art special effects (for its time). Robocop has endured as a classic – so beloved in Detroit, they city it was set in, that despite the fact the city is poor – and the fact that the film hardly paints Detroit in a positive light (and also predicts it’s near total downfall) the residents actually raised money to erect a statute of their “hero”. The new Robocop knows enough that it doesn’t just try to repeat what worked in the original film – they try to update its political and satiric content for a modern audience along with updating the special effects of course. The opening scene in the film – with Samuel L. Jackson as a Bill O’Reilly type TV demigod exposing the virtues of American entrepreneur Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) – who has created a robot police force that is used everywhere in the world except America – is the best. We see these robots – essentially an update of the ED209 from the original film – walking the streets of Tehran – and eventually getting into a fight with some insurgents – who know they will not win, but just want to die on TV – and brutally dispatching them with ruthless, cold precision. Drawing a parallel to these robots and America’s current use of drones around the world – but not on US soil – is a bold maneuver on the part of the filmmaker, and one that made me hopeful for the rest of the film. Unfortunately, the rest does not live up to its great opening scene.

The story revolves around Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) – an honest Detroit detective who along with his partner (Michael K. Williams) tries to take down the city’s biggest criminal kingpin – and fails. His partner ends up shot and in the hospital, and eventually the bad guys will plant a bomb in Murphy’s car – which when it detonates leaves him close to death. This is great news for Sellars’ Omnicorp – they are prevented from using robots on US soils – and this is hurting their bottom line – but they could use a man inside a machine to ease the American public into accepting robot police forces. They convince Murphy’s wife Clare (Abbie Cornish) to sign off on the treatment, and convince Dr. Dennet Norton (Gary Oldman) – a genius at this type of technology who doesn’t want his work to be used for combat – to oversee the transformation.

And here’s where the movie grinded to a halt for me. We spend so much time with Murphy trying to train in a research facility in China – which the movie loses much of its forward momentum. It’s an interesting change from the first film that Murphy starts with human emotions, and then loses them because of Omnicorp’s tinkering – rather than the original where he starts as a robot and gradually finds his emotional core again – but unfortunately Kinnaman is really kind of a blank slate as an actor, and doesn’t much convey the emotions very well. Gary Oldman fares better – he’s more of a misguided Dr. Frankenstein type than Miguel Ferrar’s total asshole in the original. Jackie Earle Haley plays a good snarling villain as Robocop’s trainer – but Michael Keaton seems basically to be sleepwalking through his role as the head of Omnicorp. Worse, the movie pretty much wastes the talents of Jay Baruchel – as a marketing expert – and Jennifer Ehle (who I think was the Omnicorp’s legal expert, but I’m not sure as she just kind of hangs in the background a lot). The movie also falls into the trap that the original neatly avoided by making Murphy’s wife and son more major characters. In the original, they are nothing more than flickering memories for Murphy – which was strangely effective. Here, we get scene after scene of the talented Abbie Cornish crying and wanting her husband back. The last act of the movie then basically becomes a videogame – with Robocop mowing down one set of bad guys after another, before coming to a ridiculously contrived showdown on a rooftop helipad, because of course it does.

Throughout this new Robocop however there are some neat touches. The reveal of Murphy’s body – or what left of it – to himself is a good one for example, and makes nice use of special effects. Every time Jackson shows up as the TV host, he provides an entertaining scene – and strikes a nice balance, making his character realistic enough to be believed, yet just crazy enough to scare you. While the action sequences are slightly repetitive, they are also well handled – and I liked the way the big showdown with the crime boss is not given the weight or cathartic kick we expect it to.

In short, Robocop is a mixed bag of a movie. I think the idea is there that there was potential for this to be at least a satisfying movie, if not quite up to the level of the original film. Unfortunately though the movie gets bogged down with too many characters, many of whom are played by actors who either are sleepwalking through the movie, or else aren’t given much of a chance to do anything great. Additionally, all these characters and their subplots rob the movie of any chance to be funny – the original, while bloody as hell, also had a dark sense of humor and at times makes you laugh out loud (like the great board meeting introducing the ED209, which goes horribly wrong). The filmmakers of this new Robocop were not content to simply repeat what worked before – they at least tried to make the movie their own, which is a rare thing in a remake. I admire their effort far more than I admire the result however.

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