Wednesday, February 12, 2014

In Theaters: ROBOCOP (2014)

(US - 2014)

Directed by Jose Padilha.  Written by Joshua Zetumer, Edward Neumeier, and Michael Miner. Cast: Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Samuel L. Jackson, Abbie Cornish, Jackie Earle Haley, Michael K. Williams, Jennifer Ehle, Jay Baruchel, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Patrick Garrow, John Paul Ruttan, Aimee Garcia, Zach Grenier, K.C. Collins, Daniel Kash, Douglas Urbanski. (PG-13, 117 mins)

With its perfect mix of action, over-the-top violence and sly, subversive wit, Paul Verhoeven's 1987 classic ROBOCOP still stands as one of the most inspired and original commercial sci-fi films of its decade.  The only surprise with the 2014 remake is that it took this long to happen.  Like the original film, ROBOCOP '14 has an acclaimed foreign filmmaker trying to make his mark in mainstream Hollywood.  In this case, it's Brazilian director Jose Padilha, whose intense, nail-biting, politically-charged thrillers ELITE SQUAD (2007) and ELITE SQUAD: THE ENEMY WITHIN (2011) have earned him significant accolades worldwide.  Padilha is an interesting choice to helm a ROBOCOP remake with the obvious idea of spawning a new franchise, but ultimately, starting with its PG-13 rating, ROBOCOP '14 is only as good as it has to be, and even with Padilha's usual concerns of politics and corruption, it stands as yet another cautionary tale of a promising foreign director seduced by Hollywood and likely forced to compromise and acquiesce until the resulting film effectively eliminates all traces of the innovation, vision, and personality that got him the job in the first place.

Having just revisited ROBOCOP '87 in its pristine new Blu-ray edition a couple of nights before seeing the remake, it's fascinating to note how prophetic many of its satirical elements became.  From the Halliburton-like OCP Corporation ("Who cares if it worked?") with its profits-before-people priorities ("I'm very disappointed" says the CEO when the demo ED-209 kills a staffer but also threatens to delay the rollout) and the privatization of the police to the Greek chorus of bubbleheaded newscasters Casey Wong and Jessie Perkins--whose utter vacuousness was even funnier considering they were played by actual media personalities Mario Machado and Leeza Gibbons--Verhoeven and writers Edward Neumeier (who would collaborate again on STARSHIP TROOPERS) and Michael Miner created what may stand today as the NETWORK of 1980s sci-fi action movies.  Much like the news-as-entertainment doomsday scenario of the 1976 Sidney Lumet/Paddy Chayefsky classic, the satirical elements of Verhoeven's film are the commonplace norm today.  With that in mind, there's really no angle for ROBOCOP '14 to tackle from than one of dour, thudding seriousness.  When it tries to be funny, all it's doing is pointing out obvious references to our current world, from US military occupation in the Middle East to the bloviating Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson), the right-wing, Bill O'Reilly/Glenn Beck-like host of THE NOVAK ELEMENT, a guy prone to cutting off guests who disagree with him.  That might've been hilarious 30 years ago, but not so much now when it happens daily on cable news.  Padilha and screenwriter Joshua Zetumer (Neumeier and Miner retain presumably WGA-mandated co-writing credits) follow the basic template of Verhoeven's film but to what end?  With the possible exception of the 2014 ED-209s moving a little more smoothly than their stop-motion 1987 counterparts, what improvements are made?  What insightful reflections are to be found?  None.  I'm not against remakes if they have something new to bring to the table.  Is it a bad movie?  No, not at all.  But with Verhoeven's film aging like fine wine, there's no reason for Padilha's film to exist.  If Verhoeven's film was a satirical reflection of the Reagan era, then what is Padilha's other than a reflection of 2014 mainstream Hollywood as obvious, coasting, and completely out of fresh ideas?  It's not "Gus Van Sant's PSYCHO" bad, but it's easily "CARRIE 2013" pointless.

The kind of film that shows an aerial shot of the Capitol Building and the Washington Monument yet still feels the need to include the caption "Washington, D.C.," ROBOCOP '14 presents Alex Murphy (THE KILLING's Joel Kinnaman) as an impulsive Detroit detective after Motor City crime lord Antoine Vallon (Patrick Garrow), who consistently manages to operate unencumbered thanks to numerous Detroit cops on his payroll.  When Murphy and partner Lewis (BOARDWALK EMPIRE's Michael K. Williams) go after Vallon on their own, Lewis is shot and a fed-up Vallon has a bomb planted under Murphy's car.  Of course it blows up, burning over 80% of his body, shattering his spine, blinding him in one eye, and costing him an arm and a leg.  As Murphy barely clings to life, OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), who's made billions putting peacekeeping robots and drones in war-ravaged Middle East, finally sees a loophole for his ambition to put mechanized drones on the streets to replace law enforcement.  America has a ban on drone officers because they lack the "human" element, but with Murphy's brain still functioning, Sellars sees a way to keep the human element inside the robotic shell, thus skirting the "robophobic" federal ban.  Overseeing Murphy's transformation into RoboCop is sympathetic Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), who insists that the human element can't be completely eliminated, at least until Sellars orders him to make it happen as Norton essentially rewires Murphy's brain to diminish the emotional receptors.  While this makes him a fearless killing machine who's able to apprehend any Detroit bad guy thanks to the entire department database downloaded into his brain, it also makes him unable to relate to or eventually acknowledge his wife (Abbie Cornish) and young son (John Paul Ruttan) as he pursues his single-minded goal of nabbing Vallon and any corrupt cops on the take who had a hand in his attempted murder.

A lot of ROBOCOP '14 focuses on elements that were glossed over by Verhoeven.  It's over an hour before Murphy/RoboCop is even out of the lab and on the streets.  Verhoeven had Peter Weller's Murphy killed and simply waking up as RoboCop.  Padilha gives us all that time in between--the shock of waking up with most of his body gone, the adjustment, the training, etc.--with more of a focus on Murphy's family.  Sure, it's a different approach, but was anyone clamoring for that in 1987?  Is anyone clamoring for it now?  Kinnaman is fine as the sleeker, black-suited RoboCop, with a helmet that makes him look like a third member of Daft Punk, an excellent Oldman is trying much harder than he needs to, and while Keaton's "Michael Keaton" persona is always welcome, he seems a little bored here.  And Jackson just registers zero in his scenes as Novak, which of course culminates in him letting loose with a bleeped "motherfucker" on the air, not because he's doing an astute satirical interpretation of a cable news host with an agenda, but because he's Samuel L. Jackson in a movie.  Nobody says "motherfucker" like Jackson, but it's a joke that lost its novelty around the time SNAKES ON A PLANE took a 60% drop in its second weekend.  As far as villains go, Keaton's Sellars is no Ronny Cox-as-Dick Jones, and Garrow's Vallon isn't given much of a chance to match Kurtwood Smith's Clarence Boddiker, though Sellars hatchet man Mattox (Jackie Earle Haley) arguably shares that function.  Padilha and Zetumer spend so much time on Murphy's Robo-angst that they have to rush through the action part of the story, which frequently and predictably resembles a video game with Murphy leaping around and inevitably landing in the three-point, bent-knee hero stance, and the heavily CGI'd scenes of Murphy out of the Robo-suit--essentially reduced to a head, a set of lungs, and a right arm, are unconvincing and a little silly in a BRAIN THAT WOULDN'T DIE way.  Nothing about ROBOCOP '14 is terrible, but there's nothing in it to get excited about, either.  Verhoeven's film is now 27 years old and people are still talking about it.  Will people even be talking about Padilha's version 27 days from now?

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