July 31, 2014

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Film Review: RoboCop

RoboCop | C+

What’s happened to the American action film? As Hollywood filmmakers have found the digital means to create bigger and more elaborate special effects, they seem to have forgotten what really makes an action movie work. Trading kinetic narrative for hand-held grittiness and computer-generated mayhem, most of today’s directors are unable to choreograph a coherent, dramatically satisfying fight scene or chase. Too often these movies eschew dramatic build or suspense in favor of the louder, faster spectacle of bombastic chaos.

More tragically, studio action films with scripts written by hotshot newcomers (or, worse, a roster of script doctors) fail to understand the fundamental truth — that a hero is only as good as the villain who stands in his way. Heath Ledger’s Joker aside, when’s the last time you saw a bad guy as memorable as Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber (Die Hard). Yes, there have been a few memorable movie antagonists over the last decade, but they have been dramatically outnumbered by an army of flavorless thugs and cut-and-paste Eurotrash rogues.

Take Brazilian director José Padilha’s $120 million reboot of RoboCop for instance. From its paint-by-numbers corrupt cops to its seen-him-a-million-times-before weapons dealer to Michael Keaton’s oily corporate exec, the movie is populated with generic bad guys who behave exactly as you’d expect them to. They are neither threatening nor surprising. They’re just walking plot points, dutifully complicating the protagonist’s life. Only Jackie Earle Haley, as a military robot trainer, gives his character any … well, character. And even then Joshua Zetumer’s unwieldy script offs him without ceremony or drama.

Using Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner’s 1987 RoboCop script as its foundation, this slickly designed remake sets things in 2028, in (still) crime-ridden Detroit. Though robotic security forces are being employed all around the globe, the United States has prohibited the domestic use of a mechanized police force, preferring the compassionate judgment of flesh-and-blood cops. Determined to change the public’s perception (and boost annual profits), OmniCorp CEO Ray Sellars (Michael Keaton) strong arms cybernetic scientist Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) into putting a man inside the machine with the hope that RoboCop will win the hearts and minds of the American electorate. 

Serendipitously, Detroit cop Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is horribly wounded in a car bombing while investigating a gang of arms dealers. His distraught wife (Abbie Cornish) agrees to let OmniCorp resurrect him as a part-man, part-machine law enforcement prototype. As Murphy becomes a popular, super crime fighter, however, he begins to override the company’s system controls and investigates those responsible for destroying his body … and the corporate conspiracy that is exploiting his situation.

In a world where Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 RoboCop never existed, Padilha’s reboot would be a mediocre actioner with a few interesting but underdeveloped ideas. It’s marginally better than most of the action pabulum that gets released into theaters, and it rescues the brand from the truly terrible sequels and children’s cartoons that followed in the late ’80s and early ’90s, but overall, this gritty but straight-faced PG-13 product lacks a compelling reason for being (other than, of course, box office revenue).

Where the original was a smart social and political satire that balanced savage science-fiction action against a critique of corporate-military fascism and its insidious takeover of public services, RoboCop 2.0 clumsily strains to insert satirical jabs at Fox News-style jingoism and the casual sociopathology of American corporations between bloodless action mayhem. The effects, as expected, are excellent, but their impact is ho-hum.

The film’s most effective moment comes when Murphy gets to witness how little is actually left of his body. Kinnaman’s horrified then despair-filled reaction is one of the few times we connect with the character — and certainly more affecting than his perfunctory relationship with his wife and son. Unfortunately, Padilha cuts away from his actors every time they seem to be on the verge of doing something interesting. Keaton never gets a moment to shine, and Samuel L. Jackson’s right-wing pundit, Pat Novak (of The Novak Factor), is neutered of any humor, delivering expository-heavy tirades that seem like they’ve come from a different movie. Only Jay Baruchel, in a tiny role, manages to make an impact.

While RoboCop 2014 never sinks to the wastefully disposable level of last year’s remake of Total Recall (another Verhoeven film), it can’t help but be seen as a pale shadow of its funny and startlingly relevant predecessor. Instead of being a subversive action flick about the callous indifference of a growing corporate hegemony, it seems like the product of one. 

Robocop is now playing in theaters around the region. It’s rated PG-13 with a running time of 108 minutes.

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