Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Shiny and New but Unimproved: "RoboCop" reboot just OK with few inventive parts

RoboCop (2014)
108 min., rated PG-13.

Being bizarrely released all in the same weekend, "RoboCop" is one of three remakes of R-rated movies from the 1980s, the other two ("Endless Love" and "About Last Night") hardly hailing as classics just because they were released three decades ago. Think about that for a moment. Maybe every generation needs its own incarnation of a story that's already been told, but the "RoboCop" reboot merely answers the question, "What would happen if 'RoboCop' was remade in 2014 with more CGI, less tongue-in-cheek humor, dumbed-down media and corporate-capitalism satire, a neutered PG-13 rating, and no vicious Paul Verhoeven edge?" Whereas Verhoeven's lean, mean, and outrageously ultra-violent 1987 satirical sci-fi actioner was ahead of its time, even with its charmingly crude and aged special effects, Brazilian director José Padilha's mechanical, po-faced retooling seems like it jumped right off the focus-grouped assembly line. Taken on its own, it's disposably entertaining as a generic, business-as-usual product, but what's the point?

The year is 2028 and Detroit-based corporation OmniCorp has manufactured peace-keeping drones to keep the Iranian people of Tehran safe from suicide bombers. According to the mayor, there's just one snag: these efficient bots show no humanity. Before long, OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) tries to rid America of its "robo-phobia" and see a Senate bill passed, looking to turn a human cop amputee into a law-enforcement robot to keep the Detroit streets safe. When Detroit Police Officer Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is terribly burned and critically injured in a car explosion rigged by a gang of arms-and-drug dealers, the only chance for wife Clara (Abbie Cornish) and son David (John Paul Ruttan) to see their husband and father alive again is for Clara to give OmniCorp her consent to prototype Murphy as the corporation's first hybrid. Under the experimentation and care of Sellars' appointed doctor, Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), Murphy awakens, horrified at what he's become, and tries re-connecting with his wife and son four months later. Sellars wants him to be a conscience-free killing machine who can pick a criminal offender out of a crowd in a minute, but can Murphy override the system?

Not unlike the fun-sponge 2013 redo of Verhoeven's "Total Recall," "RoboCop" is an OK, competently made distraction as mindless fare goes, but distinctly inferior to its progenitor. If nothing else, the film does look grittier and modern for the times, and being made twenty-seven years later, the effects are sleeker and more advanced. Director Padilha, working from an updated screenplay by first-timer Joshua Zetumer, should be credited, too, for making a little room for his own interpretation and not following the original's credited screenwriters' work beat for beat, to the letter. However, it must be à la mode that most of today's action pictures must trade in a sense of humor for serious faces. Read: this Murphy does not ingest baby food or shoot a rapist in the crotch. There are a few amusing details, like weapons expert and machine trainer Mattox (Jackie Earle Haley) calling Murphy "Tin Man" and then playing a little music ("If I Only Had a Heart") during RoboCop's training session against an actual robot. While the carnage is too softened to really pop, a couple of the action set-pieces are dynamically staged, including one, rapidly shot like a video game, in a China warehouse where Murphy takes on multiple armed robots and another shoot-out that begins in night-vision. Too bad neither of them are fun enough to be memorable, as Padilha too often compromises the spectacle with a tiresome shaky-cam shooting style. "RoboCop" tries holding onto the interesting idea of free will and that a man melded into a machine can still have a soul and show human feelings of remorse. Well, considering Murphy's interactions at home with his family, prior to his resurrection, actually exist this time around but are limited to only a single scene, the throughline is flattened out and carries little pathos. Murphy seeking vigilante justice on his murderers is kept intact, although the colorless, interchangeable baddies here are no match for Kurtwood Smith's despicable, gum-chewing Clarence Boddicker in the first "RoboCop." 

A crucial problem with "RoboCop" lies in the casting of wiry Swedish actor Kinnaman (TV's "The Killing"). Frankly, he's a deadly dull cipher as Alex Murphy. Even more steely than the original's Peter Weller, he is so robotic, inexpressive, and free of charisma that his delivery actually improves once he gets "suited up" as RoboCop, shedding a few tears at the sight of what's left of his former body (a cool bodily horror moment). By the by, Kinnaman's cyborg movements are at least spot-on. The rest of the cast is a good one, but it's the stock material they're working with that leaves them high and dry. Cornish does her level best in bringing some heart to the thin part of Loving, Concerned Wife, and Oldman classes up the role of compassionate, ethically torn Dr. Norton as much as he can. Meanwhile, Keaton is all caffeined up as the cardboard-bad Sellars, Jay Baruchel smarms it up as the marketing head, and the too-good-for-this Jennifer Ehle is given zilch to do but type away on her phone as OmniCorp's icy, all-business legal counsel. Also, Samuel L. Jackson pops in and out, hammering subtext into text by stridently spouting off cultural critique as a sort-of black Bill O'Reilly who hosts a slanted network news show called "The Novak Element."

There may be a new remake in town and its name may be "RoboCop," but while it doesn't do anything disastrously wrong and isn't the worst of the "Unnecessary Remake" lot, this spiritless version just doesn't invent much for itself to justify its own existence. Without feeling aggressively shoehorned in, lip service is paid with a few one-liners, which don't always land, and samplings of Basil Poledouris' iconic theme will bring ardent fans a moment of giddiness. If all you want is a slick, muscular machine with a safety net, this should do, but heed this advice: just watch the real McCoy if you haven't already.

Grade: C +

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