Friday, February 14, 2014

Robocop


Grade: 40/C

There’s an instant, knee-jerk reaction of “How dare they!” that greets most movie remakes, regardless of the level of talent behind it. A remake of a movie as beloved as Robocop, Paul Verhoeven’s brilliant, uber-violent satire/action classic, is already fighting an uphill battle. Here’s the thing: the idea of remaking Robocop, while certainly a tall order, isn’t an inherently terrible idea. But director José Padilha doesn’t do anything new with the story, and the film, while well-crafted, is still something of a slog.

Joel Kinnaman stars as Alex Murphy, a cop chasing down a gun-runner in 2028 Detroit. When a pair of crooked cops bomb Murphy’s car, he’s left critically injured. Cue Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), a brilliant scientist working in robotic prosthetics, who’s been hired by OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) to build a cop with the strength of a robot but the conscience of a man. Murphy’s wife Clara (Abbie Cornish) reluctantly signs off on saving him, and he’s turned into a cyborg cop. But Sellars is using Murphy and Norton to strike down a bill that would ban robotic soldiers in the United States, and he’s willing to keep him from his family and control his humanity for his purposes.

At the very least, Padilha and screenwriter Joshua Zetumer deserve credit for not repeating the original’s story or tone beat-for-beat, as so many remakes are wont to do. The new Robocop is similarly a takedown of corporate chicanery, but where the original was a prescient satire of Reaganomics, the new one takes a look at machine assassinations (see: drones) and corporate contracts with military organizations. The film also gets a few decent shots at right-wing punditry, with Samuel L. Jackson playing a Bill O’Reilly type given to browbeating anyone with opposing views.

But the film otherwise doesn’t have anything prescient or thoughtful to say about these topics than “it’s bad,” and while it’s admirable in theory to avoid Verhoeven’s careful tone of graphic violence, pointed satire, and 80s action comedy, it plays the story way too straight and dull for it to be engaging. Padilha remains a skillful action director (he did direct Elite Squad, after all), but the shootouts lacks the punch they require, and the stakes of most of the action scenes are maddeningly low.

And Zetumer’s script is an absolute mess. It gives its actors little more to play than stock roles (Kinnaman is Stern Hero, Cornish is Wife, Michael K. Williams is Partner, and Keaton, Jennifer Ehle, and Jackie Earle Haley are Bad Guys), with only Oldman getting more than one note to play as a conflicted scientist. Every character’s decision feels based on where the plot needs to go more than an essential part of their being – Murphy’s transformation from monotone warrior to hero seeking revenge, for example, comes out of an encounter that’s just as much by chance as in the original, but feels far more like an “Oh, shit, we gotta get this moving along” decision. Just about everything about the new film is generic: the villains, the heroes, the city (rather than the original's terrific portrayal of a crime and poverty-ridden Detroit), you name it. The problem with the new Robocop isn’t that it isn’t much like the original, it’s that it should have replaced the humor, violence, and insight of the original with something rather than nothing.


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1 comment:

  1. Translated into your rating system I gave RoboCop a B-.

    I think saying "Padilha doesn't do anything new" with RoboCop is a bit reductive. Later you say that he doesn't copy the tone and story, so maybe I'm not disagreeing with you as much as it feels like I am. I thought he did a good job adapting an old story for new cultural conditions.

    Definitely agree that the script is a bit of a mess, the fact that so many people are uninteresting characters was probably the weakest point of the movie for me. And while I think this remake obviously lacks the incisiveness of the original, saying it's not insightful at all I think amounts to ignoring some of the movie's (admittedly few) stronger aspects. I like that you do a good job of critiquing this movie on its own terms though instead of the rampant "it's not the original! burn it with fire!" so thanks for that.

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