Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Robocop (2014)

Directed by Jose Padilha.
2014. Rated PG-13, 117 minutes.
Joel Kinnaman
Gary Oldman
Michael Keaton
Samuel L. Jackson
Abbie Cornish
Jackie Earle Haley
Michael K. Williams
Jennifer Ehle
Jay Baruchel
Marianne Jean-Baptiste
Aimee Garcia

Around the world, American company OmniCorp employs robots of various sizes to take the place of actual U.S. soldiers, thus saving the lives of many American men and women. However, the practice is banned here in the states. Despite deep pockets and powerful lobbyists, the company can't persuade the powers that be to lift the ban. CEO Raymond Sellars (Keaton) believes the key to getting it overturned is by actually putting a man inside one of his machines. This is where Detroit detective Alex Murphy (Kinnaman) comes in. Alex and his partner Jack (Williams) are working undercover on a big case. When things go south, Jack winds up in the hospital after having been shot. Since the bad guys want to finish the job, they soon come after Alex, by blowing up his car with him right next to it. Without some form of life support, he will die. However, he is deemed to be the perfect candidate by head doctor Dennett Norton (Oldman) and is soon given his very own technologically advanced suit of armor that doubles as his body and becomes Robocop. Trying to get him just right before sending him out on the streets ensues. In case you've somehow never heard of it, this is a remake of the 1987. original.

Right off the bat, there is a major problem with this movie. That problem is Alex Murphy. What it is about him that makes him the perfect candidate for such a daring experiment is never sufficiently explained. We're never shown, either. What we do see makes him more likely to go on the reject pile. He's hot-headed, impulsive, reckless, and has a problem with authority. On top of that, he's not the most likable guy. All of these are things that should disqualify him from such a program. Matters aren't helped by the fact that even though we know there must be something more to him, we're never really given the chance to find out what that is. He is basically the same hard-boiled cop we've seen in hundreds of movies that barks at everyone and is going to do things his way and then suddenly he's Robocop. That type of character works in a movie where the hero following his instincts serves him right while it becomes obvious that following protocol would work to his detriment. It doesn't work when the movie depicts a big corporation looking for someone to walk the company line and present a good face to the public. It's something that keeps us from becoming invested in the character.

Once our hero is in the suit, Robocop takes its cue from comic book origin movies, and spends lots of time on the training of our hero. We get lengthy scenes of conversations about what should be done with him followed by us witnessing the implication of whatever strategies Sellars and Norton come up with. At least the latter usually shows some type of showdown between Robocop and Rick Mattox (Haley), the guy that works with all the machines. Eventually, we get to the actual police work part of the movie. When we do, it rather quickly becomes a revenge flick as our hero is simply out to get the people responsible for his condition. The action showing this is mostly fun, and exciting stuff. Unfortunately, because of what has or hasn't transpired to this point, it is lacking any sort of heart. All we've done is connect the dots that we're supposed to in this sort of film. It simply goes 'life changing event, training, loud stuff, end.' We see it, but never care about it. Action junkies won't dismiss it, but even they aren't likely to embrace it, either. It simply becomes stuff happening on the screen while time passes.

Those of us who have seen the original, of course, get a double whammy. Not only is what we're seeing not all that compelling, but it removes the elements that made the original work. We first have to revisit the portrayal of the protagonist. The Alex Murphy played by Peter Weller in '87 is a genuinely likable guy. We see how important his family is to him. We also know that he not only wants to do the right thing, but to accomplish it the right way. This new version also wants to do what is right, however, it's clear he's willing to cut corners to do it. Once he's in the suit, it's made worse by the handling of the functionality of his artificial parts verses his natural ones. Namely, we're talking about how his psyche is handled. The original understood that for him to be at all believable the parts of him that made him distinctly human must remain intact. This is what creates the conflict between himself and the machine he's trapped in. The remake pays lip service to that idea, explicitly stating that what makes a person a person is their brain, not the parts surrounding it. Then, a few minutes later, when that brain is causing a problem it's simply shut off. How much of his own thought process is in play can literally be controlled by the turning of a dial. It's an artificial, not to mention arbitrary, obstacle that didn't need to be there. The idea of a man merged with a machine is already hard to swallow, but something we can buy into. Being able to just shut off the human side, especially without sufficient buildup to this, is not. It's an added layer of silliness that detracts from the movie rather than adding to it.

The other big differences between this and its predecessor are the tone and the visuals. In the original, these two things work in concert to create a hyper-violent dark comedy. Tonally, it is mostly tongue-in-cheek and takes aim at our insatiable consumerism, among other things. From that end of it, we get a razor sharp satire. From the visual end, we get a fairly gory movie. To keep from going into a lengthy description of it, let's just say it makes you familiar with the term splatter. The remake goes in the opposite direction. As far as satire goes, this version will have none of it. It takes itself overly serious and just trudges forward. If there is any attempt at it, it's wrapped in the scenes featuring Samuel L. Jackson as Pat Novak, a political talk show host. Essentially, he's a shill for OmniCorp. The situation is ripe for examining corporate influence on both the media and the government. However, the opportunity passes unexamined. In the violence department, the amount is reduced quite a bit and what we do get is sanitized to fit into its PG-13 box. So, while that part of it is fun in the way lots of action scenes are, it's not a visceral experience. Nothing about it makes us sit up and say 'wow.'

That lack of a wow factor is the biggest problem with this movie. Even if you're not at all familiar with the original, it just doesn't have much pizazz. For those of you in that category, it'll probably be a passable action flick, nothing more. Instead of standing out from the crowd, it fits snugly within it. The all-star cast can only help so much because they are all working in service of an unmemorable hero. The best thing about him is the design of his suit. Compared to the old one, it's sleeker and sexier, even if it inexplicably (and weirdly) includes Murphy's actual right hand. For those of us that have seen the original, the suit is the only thing this movie does better. Most things, the old one does better by a large margin. That was an inventive and gutsy movie. The 2014 version of Robocop is a re-imagining without much imagination.


  1. I haven't seen the original, nor did I really know anything about Robocop before I saw this which may be why I enjoyed this a little more than you did, but it definitely wasn't a memorable film for me! Great review :)
    - Allie

    1. I can see how going in blind would make it a better experience. Even so, it's all to safe to really care about. Thanks.

  2. Y'know, I remember the original and I understand why it was such a cult fave. But for some reason I did not hate this one. It's not great but I had such a low expectation that I ended up enjoying it.

    1. More power to ya. It just didn't work for me, at all.

  3. Great read... I'm totally in agreement. I was really disappointed by this one but I am a big fan of the original. A good support cast couldn't salvage this film's lead star's lack of charisma.

    1. Thanks a bunch. If I may, I'd like to make one correction to your comment. I'd say the star had an astonishing lack of charisma.

  4. Great review. I liked this more than you did, but I treated this as an action flick (it was what it was just going for, nothing further). I did like the original a lot more than this, that one was funny and awesome, charm that the remake didn't have. Everyone involved basically overshadowed the lead actor (including his wife, whose performance I didn't even like).

    1. Thanks. It's kind of hard to make a movie work when literally every other person in it is more interesting than the hero.