Release: Wednesday, February 12, 2014
It takes guts to be RoboCop. Almost quite literally, nothing more and nothing less.
Swedish hunk Joel Kinnaman assumes the iconic role of Detroit police officer Alex Murphy in José Padilha’s controversial decision to ignore the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality, as it were. Kinnaman (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; Easy Money) trusted in the material enough to provide his signature on this modern reboot — a film that features impressive visual flare but perhaps not quite enough intelligence to fully justify its existence for the legions of fans of the original.
Given the overwhelming disappointment associated with the 2012 repackaging of Total Recall, the cause for concern over revisiting another of Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi classics is more than understandable. Fortunately, it was mostly overblown. Padilha doesn’t do anything with the material that’s revolutionary, but, like the predicament facing the half-machine, half-human protagonist, there are just enough parts laying about to construct something out of what appears to be nothing.
Alex Murphy is one of many of Detroit’s finest, seen at the beginning of the film tracking down a local crime boss named Antoine Vallon (Patrick Garrow). He’s patrolling dangerous streets in the year 2028, in an era where great controversy has been stirred over the concept of replacing entire (human) police forces with robots and machines. Fueling the debate is the immense tech conglomeration OmniCorp whose CEO, Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), is particularly interested in adopting a new method for keeping the domestic peace. The United States has already been implementing robots-as-soldiers over seas, where they have proved to be effective at eliminating threats, while preserving the lives of soldiers who would ordinarily be in their place. But it goes a little beyond that for Sellars. He’s looking for not just another blunt instrument, he’s searching for the right gimmick that he can sell to the public in an effort to increase his company’s (ergo his personal) stock.
As luck would have it, it would be an early Christmas for Sellars. When a bomb that Vallon’s men plant underneath Detective Murphy’s car detonates upon his opening of the driver’s side door, the officer is left with fourth degree burns over 80% of his body and a slim chance of survival. OmniCorp’s brilliant medical staff, spearheaded by Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), pounces on the opportunity to put a man inside a machine. It is hoped that the marriage of a human conscience to the calculating perfection of advanced robot technology would create the ideal law enforcer. And so begins the film’s ethical tug-of-war: at what point does man stop and machine begin? Does it make sense to strip away some of Murphy’s stronger emotions so as to ensure the organic part of the robot complies with “company policy?” Is ‘ideal’ really the right word to describe Murphy’s unique situation?
The moral dilemma at hand, which is emphasized by the performance of the reliable-as-ever Gary Oldman, is this contemporary crime satire’s real strengths. (Well, that and the suit — it is entirely badass.) Joshua Zetumer’s screenplay strikes an uncomfortable balance (in a good way) between medical, social and political ethics. All three converge at a point, through Kinnaman’s portrayal of Murphy’s struggle. He turns out to be an incredibly effective weapon that quickly cleans up Detroit’s streets, but he lacks virtually everything else that once made him a father, a husband, and a good partner in the police force.
To a lesser effect, the cold and heartless way in which OmniCorp operates seems to echo society’s demands for keeping crime at zero percent. Those who portray the company’s head honchos aren’t exactly inspired. Keaton is bad at playing the human with a metaphorical robotic heart and without a conscience; ditto that to anyone else in that building not named Dennett Norton and Tom Pope (played by a surprisingly charismatic Jay Baruchel). Supporting actors are minimally used and unconvincing as well, including Murphy’s wife Clara (Abbie Cornish). Jackie Earle Haley has a little bit of fun with his role as the inexplicably hostile Rick Mattox, though his demise is supremely underwhelming.
Samuel L. Jackson plays the humorous pundit, Pat Novak, whose presence bookends the film. Though he does offer the film its few bits of comedy, he’s too distracting and ultimately plays a more trumped-up version of his real-life persona. He is an odd selection for the tone of this film.
The RoboCop of the new age is actually pretty ironic. Like it’s 27-year-old predecessor, it attempts to satirize the ineffectiveness of real-world crime-solving. Whereas Verhoeven’s much bloodier film used excessive gore to make a point, this version tones down the violence significantly to make room for a more general audience, but in so doing it loses heart. It comes across far more mechanical and seems to go through the motions in far too many scenes to generate much of a sense of identity.
That said, there are numerous action sequences throughout that provide heightened tension and cause heart rates to rise rapidly; a battle sequence in a darkened warehouse sits atop the pile of memorable scenes. Moments like this and the revelation of what Officer Murphy’s guts look like without his high-tech gadgetry protecting them allow RoboCop to squeak by and into acceptable territory, even if a great deal of the material remains as emotionally distant junk metal.
Recommendation: For anyone who hasn’t seen the 1987 version, going into the 2014 edition would prove to be a great advantage. On its own, Padilha’s vision is somewhat exciting but it’s not outstanding. As an action film, it suits just fine, especially on a day like Valentine’s Day if you’re sitting by yourself getting irritated by seeing a bunch of pink stuff all over the place. RoboCop offers a great alternative on this day in particular, but if you want a truly imaginative satirization of crime, best stick with the original on any other day.
Running Time: 108 mins.
Quoted: “Why is America so robo-phobic?”
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