Sunday, February 16, 2014

Robocop Review: Surprisingly not terrible... (that's all I got, really)

By Andrew Braid


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Directed by Jose Padilha
Starring: Joel Kinnaman, Abbie Cornish, Michael Keaton, Gary Oldman, Jackie Earle Haley, Jay Baruchel, Michael K. Williams, Samuel L. Jackson
Release Date: February 12, 2014
Presented in 2D and IMAX


Did we really need a Robocop remake?
The original 1987 film is still revered as a genre classic of its time, with an enduring legacy of executives doing everything possible to sh** all over it with Robocop 2, Robocop 3, the live-action TV series, the other live-action TV series, Robocop 3, two kids' cartoons, and that one movie with the PG-13 rating and the stupid jetpack. What was it called again?

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Ugh... right...
 Sorry, losing my point a bit.
Thing is, no matter how hard the forces of Hollywood seemed to try, absolutely nothing has tarnished the original film's reputation, still seen as equal parts badass ultraviolent action movie and intelligent, biting satire of corporate-ruled American culture. And even if they remade it and it was terrible, its legacy would still stand, as beloved by its fans, young and old, as it's ever been. Besides, there's no way anyone could make a Robocop movie worse than the one with cyber-ninjas and Rip Torn.
I'll be honest, like many of you I wasn't exactly looking forward to the new remake of Robocop, brought to us by Elite Squad series director Jose Padilha and Sony's insistent marketing budget. Namely because when you get right down to it, there honestly doesn't seem like there's any need for a remake to exist- all the points that the original makes still stand. Everything it has to say is still relevant to the present day: the rich have essentially won and have taken over the country, leaving the 99% of average folks to suffer in s***holes like Detroit with rampant crime that the media loves to gloss over whenever it can to keep people complacent (that is, when they're not distracted by lowest-common denominator TV shows). It didn't just offer a vision of the future; its vision was already true back then, and things haven't really changed that much at all by now (I mean, have you seen Detroit lately?). Science fiction is meant to be about offering new, often-personal visions of the future, so how can you do that through a remake, a term which by definition seems to mean recycled rehash of what's already there? Well if there's anything the new Robocop does right, it's this: take the basic framework and make a different movie about different themes.

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It's a thrilling new story about trying to look as much like Batman as possible.

So what is Robocop about? (well, this time, anyway?) Detective Alex Murphy (The Killing's Joel Kinnaman) is a devoted and honest cop who finds himself in critical condition after a hit on his life by local arms dealers who he has been doggedly trying to take on against his superiors' wishes. Covered in fourth-degree burns and almost impossible to salvage, his wife (Abbie Cornish) is pressured by Omnicorp to consent to a procedure that transforms him into Robocop, America's next step in law enforcement. Part-man and part-machine, he is Omnicorp's loophole around dogged laws to keep their products off of home soil, with CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) hoping to sway public opinion on robotic crime control by giving Americans a human face they can put their support behind. But problems ensue as OmniCorp wishes to make their new product more efficient and easier to control, pushing their well-intentioned Chief Scientist Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) into tinkering with Murphy's new programming, to give him the illusion of free will. So who's pulling the trigger when the combat visor goes down? Can Murphy's sense of humanity overcome his directives? And can he ever reconnect with his struggling family?

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Mr. Kinnaman doesn't seem so pleased that the studios just won't let The Killing die away already...

This iteration of the Robocop story points the lens less towards satire and more towards tragedy and ethical debates. How much can one control innate human will? What defines our humanity in the first place? Can a corporation really claim control over Robocop, a man rebuilt as a machine? Should machines really be allowed to pull the trigger? With our innate emotions, our weaknesses and our frailties, what gives us the right to pull the trigger? Is the problem with Omnicorp's robotics enforcement in foreign policy more the robots themselves or the corporate people in charge of them? The film dangles all these surprisingly thoughtful ideas over our heads, all while focusing on Robocop himself as a modern-day Frankenstein's monster, cursed to live again as a shell of a man. It would never have been the classic that the original film was, but this new Robocop has some real ingredients to work with, which could have made for a great remake.
What holds it back is the overall execution. Trying to juggle so many ideas in a sci-fi action film is inevitably going to leave some of those thoughts less developed than others, and Robocop is no exception. In its need to adhere to action movie formula, it can't help but miss some opportunities for further introspection. At the same time, some of these ideas are literally spelled-out for the audience, usually in the Omnicorp boardroom scenes. It's admirable that the movie tries to explore so much, but it needs to show some more faith in its audience to pick up on the points it wants to make  (this is something the original managed to handle quite well).
Much ballyhoo has been made over the film's PG-13 rating, a stark contrast to the original film's famous over-the-top ultraviolence, which not only made it more entertaining but also supported its satirical intents (just watch the famous ED-209 boardroom scene as an example). While the new film's PG-13 isn't quite the death sentence that many fans had predicted, it's still a film that's desperately begging for more bite and edge. Things like Robocop's new stun gun makes sense in the film's context (there's more expectation of him to actually bring targets in alive this time), but the movie just can't shake the feeling of being neutered from the more high-minded ambitions of the filmmakers.
The action sequences in general are slick and well-shot, with solid staging and traces of his more handheld-cam aesthetic carried over from the Elite Squad movies. But they only prove entertaining on a superficial level, lacking much in the way of weight or stakes, particularly during the film's bland, slapped-together climax (it doesn't help that no matter how hard you try, I'll never be able to see the ED-209s as a credible threat- if you know the original it's obvious why). There should be something, anything at stake here, but instead it just feels like a sequence of "this happens, then this happens"- it literally feels mechanical. The film as a whole could have used less sheen and more grit- more R-rated violence would undoubtedly improve the film, but used in a different, more serious context than the original. Stronger violence would heighten the stakes while conveying a greater sense of consequences to the action, as a result bolstering the strength of the film's intended ethical questions.
On a (somewhat) more personally irksome note is the film's backwards steps in female representation. Now I'm not saying that the original Robocop was some paragon of women's empowerment (most of the women seen are 80s prostitutes and potential rape victims), but the film did prominently feature Murphy's old partner Anne Lewis, a tough, capable cop who just happens to be a woman, and who's anything but helpless. Here her character is changed into a man, and as much as we all love The Wire's Michael K. Williams this can't help but feel like a push in the wrong direction. Not that keeping the character's gender would have helped much, as Lewis' presence in the plot is almost completely perfunctory this time around anyway (proving just how often Hollywood doesn't know what to do with perfectly good actors). The only really prominent female character in the cast is Abbie Cornish, who is stuck playing the same generic wife/love interest character we've seen a bajillion times before. Cornish certainly isn't a bad actress, but she's given so very little to work with most of the time (the scene where Alex, now Robocop, comes home to see his family for the first time in 4 months is the only one that really stands out at all). Eventually she's held hostage at gunpoint along with Murphy's son during the climax, because the creative team clearly couldn't think of anything better to do with her character. If there's anything a remake shouldn't do, it's being less progressive than the original.

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Because if there's one thing this Robocop needs, it's these dead weights

Cornish and Williams are indicative of most of the film's cast- serviceable, adequately conveying what the plot requires them to, but lacking in much charisma or anything particularly memorable. Kinnaman's lead performance as Murphy at least has some meaty material to work with, but even with his whole face to act with most of the time (an advantage Peter Weller didn't have throughout much of his tenure as Robocop) he never really jumps out with much personality. At the very least it's clear he's making an effort, he just can't hope to match up to Weller's work in the original.
Keaton as the main villain is appropriately slimy and shrewd and a good fit for his role, though his main role seems to be coming up with eureka moments that he can speech about or mull over like he's hosting some evil TED Talk segment. Jackie Earle Haley likewise is appropriately douchey as Mattox, Robocop's trainer (and later Sellars' right-hand man), but around the halfway point the film struggles to find space to squeeze him into the story. The only members of the cast who really get to stand out are Gary Oldman's Dr. Norton and Samuel L. Jackson as the host of a Fox News-style news/propaganda show called The Novak Element. Oldman is the film's true MVP, elevating the stock role of conflicted scientist into a person with genuinely good intentions, doing so much to sell the viewer on the tragedy of Murphy/Robocop's situation. The best scenes in the film are between him and Kinnaman, where we see just what's left of Robocop that's actually human (I personally found the image of Murphy's lungs, still pumping while contained in glass containers, to be particularly unsettling).  Jackson meanwhile just seems to be having a great time being, well, Samuel L. Jackson (then again, wouldn't you if you were him?). His segments are interspersed at various points in the film, essentially replacing the fake news broadcasts and commercials present in the original. Jackson's presence goes quite a ways to helping these scenes imbue the film with some much-needed sense of the original's satire and humor, which is otherwise lacking in the main story (although some bits of the boardroom meetings at Omnicorp have their moments).

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Robocop is an interesting case. It's not exactly a good film per se, but it is a film with good elements to it, and remains surprisingly watchable throughout despite its (undoubtedly apparent) flaws. It's not even close to matching the standards of the original 1987 film, but there was really never a chance of that to begin with. Stopping to accept that, the new Robocop does effectively distinguish itself as its own take on the material, better than many other remakes can claim (especially fellow Paul Verhoeven remake Total Recall). It's execution is a touch too tame (and even sloppy) at times, but its efforts are apparent and most definitely appreciable.
So yeah, I just might buy that for a dollar (hey, if you think that reference was weak, just watch how this movie throws it in).

Final Score: 6/10

Pros:
+ Effectively distinguishes itself from the original
+ Plays with intriguing science fiction ideas of free will and the ethics of machines
+ Explores more tragic elements of the material and the character
+ Gary Oldman's invaluable elevation of the material
+ Samuel L. Jackson, pretty much being Samuel L. Jackson
+ It's not Robocop 3

Cons:
- The PG-13 rating, while not a complete dealbreaker, undeniably holds the film back from having more bite and edge
- Most of the cast, including Kinnaman in the lead, is mainly just serviceable and not much else
- Some of the ideas are too spelled-out 
- Action scenes in general are slick, but entertaining in only a superficial sense
- Underwhelming, slapped-together climax
- Gender-wise it's actually less progressive than the original