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RoboCop: Fun’s Over, Boys

by admin February 12, 2014 6:00 am
RoboCop: Fun’s Over, Boys

Looking back, Paul Verhoeven's RoboCop ranks as one of the most unlikely franchise-starters in Hollywood history. Operating without much studio oversight, the Dutch filmmaker produced a scabrous satire of the corporatization of Reagan-era America wrapped inside of an ultraviolent, hard-R rated action film. It's the sort of stunt that's really only designed to work once, but -- thanks to Peter Weller's square-jawed performance and that gleaming, instantly iconic Rob Bottin-designed metal suit -- RoboCop the character quickly became bigger than the film that birthed him. A pair of big-screen sequels followed, as well as four different TV shows (two live action and two animated), comic books, video games (including one where he battles the Terminator for some reason) and even a theme park ride. And once a character created to spoof big business became big business, you could kiss any lingering satiric impulses goodbye. The latter-day RoboCop vehicles mostly eschewed humor for mindless action and a forced solemnity that, frankly, was often plenty funny (unintentionally so) in its own right.

That trend continues with the long-in-the-works RoboCop remake, directed by Brazilian filmmaker José Padilha, who landed the gig on the strength of his Elite Squad pictures, two superior cop movies that pit the last honest police officer in Rio against a department awash in corruption. Like Verhoeven, Padilha does come into RoboCop with a specific Big Idea he wants to wrestle with, which instantly makes his production more interesting than the brain-dead sequels to the 1987 original. But apart from a running gag involving Samuel L. Jackson as a right wing TV bloviator a la Bill O'Reilly, humor isn't a part of this guy's mise-en-scène. His vision of RoboCop is more in keeping with Frankenstein's monster (Mary Shelley's version, not Boris Karloff's): a creature grappling with the existential crisis of being -- to quote the tagline of the '87 version -- part man and part machine. Verhoeven, on the other hand, zeroed in on the "all cop" portion of that sales pitch, offering up the alternately hilarious and horrifying near-future vision of a weaponized, robotized, corporate-sponsored police force.

So what's this Big Idea that Padilha is so freakin' serious about? In a word: drones. Leaping ahead almost two decades to the not-so-far-off year of 2028, the director imagines a world where America keeps the peace abroad courtesy of mechanized soldiers created and overseen by the all-powerful OmniCorp. Thanks to the U.S. government's longstanding ban against using that technology on these shores, though, the corporation is prevented from marketing their wares to the world's most lucrative markets. To skirt the edges of the law, cutting-edge CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) comes up with the so-crazy-it-just-might-work idea of putting a flesh-and-blood human inside one of their robot contraptions and turns to his top scientist Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) to make it a reality. (By the way, yes, this bit of casting does mean that the original modern-day big-screen Batman is bossing around the most recent Commissioner Gordon. Talk about mash-ups you want to see.)

Norton gets the human guinea pig he requires when a crusading Detroit cop named Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) goes kablooey courtesy of a car bomb rigged up for him by the crime kingpin he and his partner, Jack (Michael K. Williams, an entirely agreeable replacement for Nancy Allen) have been pursuing. Significantly, Murphy isn't deceased when his wife Clara (Abbie Cornish) signs over his body to OmniCorp -- he's just suffering from a host of flesh wounds that are never, ever going to get better without going the cyborg route. That means that, unlike Weller's RoboCop, this one is fully aware of his human identity from the moment he re-awakens in Norton's lab. And boy, does Padilha milk this tweak to the mythology for all its worth, most effectively in the movie's single best scene when Norton de-armors Murphy to show him just how much of his body survived the explosion: his head, his lungs and a single hand.

That moment plays because it summarizes the movie's driving theme in a potent visual image. The rest of the time, unfortunately, Padilha allows RoboMurphy and the folks surrounding him to indulge in excess verbiage when it comes to wrestling with the moral and ethical issues of his plight. It would be one thing if the dialogue had the tart-tongued flair of, say, Shane Black or even the plain-spoken directness of the '87 version penned by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner. But Joshua Zetumer's script is one of those dumb screenplays that really, really wants to sound smart by repeatedly and heavy-handedly making every piece of subtext text. Far too much screentime is given over to needlessly prolonged sequences set in interchangeable laboratories and boardrooms in which the characters keep having the same "Oh, the humanity" arguments again and again. This level of stolidness is a surprise coming from Padilha, who did a fine job translating theme into action in the Elite Squad movies as well as the terrific documentary Bus 174. In this case though, he's seems so concerned that moviegoers understand that his RoboCop is, like, sooooo deep man, that he relentlessly emphasizes the central metaphor in the cinematic equivalent of bold tags. (Verhoeven, in contrast, doesn't much care whether audiences get what he's going for or not, which is one of the reasons why it took awhile for Starship Troopers to be recognized as the top-shelf satire that it is.)

Then again, maybe all that talk was a way for Padilha to delay the effects-heavy, everything goes boom stuff for as long as possible, an approach to action filmmaking that he clearly hasn't mastered yet. Both Elite Squad films are distinguished by their kinetic energy, with the camera hurtling down the confined alleyways and over the rooftops of Rio's favelas trying to keep up with the characters. The digital F/X demands of RoboCop make it a challenge to retain a similar visual style and it's apparent that the director is struggling to find some kind of middle ground. It's no accident that the movie's most cleanly choreographed bit of mayhem is also its most small-scale set-piece: a training sequence that pits RoboCop against a small squad of OmniCorp drones in a nondescript warehouse. By the time Murphy is battling his way through the corporation's Detroit-based headquarters and taking on bigger, badder droids, though, Padilha appears less concerned with things like spatial geography and point-of-view and is mainly trying to just get through the scene. (Speaking of Detroit, one of the other big disappointments of this new RoboCop is that there's little-to-no sense of what this currently-troubled metropolis is like 20 years from now. The city is very much a character in the '87 film: here's is just a stage on which carnage happens.)

Look, expectations were so low for this RoboCop remake that one could argue that Padhila deserves a pass simply for not making a film that's as objectively terrible as the second and third entries in the original franchise. And, to be sure, there are legitimate things to like about this film, among them the spirited performances from Jackson and Keaton (both of whom valiantly attempt to inject some levity into the proceedings however they can), the timeliness of the drone question and the sight of Omar Little kicking ass and taking names on the streets of future Detroit. (No disrespect to Kinnaman, who is perfectly adequate in the part, but Williams would have been a killer RoboCop.) But there's no escaping the fact that the subversive delight of the original -- that sense that the director is really getting away with something special -- has long since been lost. This RoboCop is an assembly-line product where even the social commentary arrives pre-packaged.

Get showtimes and tickets for this movie from Fandango.

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