Wednesday, February 12, 2014
In 1987 I was a pimply teen slinging/sweeping popcorn in a movie theater when the boss asked me to help set up a stand-up promo for an upcoming film in the lobby. As we fit together the various cardboard pieces, the name and chrome-domed image of "Robocop" came into focus.
We couldn't stop laughing. It looked like the goofiest, dumbest thing we'd ever seen. The display continued to provoke titters and jokes the next few weeks. We'd walk past it in a herky-jerky manner, dubbing ourselves "Robo-usher."
Then we saw the movie.
The laughing stopped, and although we'd continue to imitate Robocop, it was now performed with reverence instead of mockery.
Director Paul Verhoeven's "Robocop" instantly became an iconic film for a number of reasons. There was the kitschy premise of a man-turned-android, plus of course some very hard-edged violence -- initially earning an X rating from the MPAA -- that ping-ponged between cartoonish and nauseating. There was the incredibly cynical, sardonic view of a near-future Detroit ruled by Machiavellian corporations and dimwitted media info-tainment.
But at the center was the surprisingly soulful journey of the main character, an everyman cop who gains superhero-esque powers but has to give up a huge chunk of his humanity in the process. We cheered Robocop, and we pitied him.
The new remake is thoroughly unnecessary, but that doesn't mean the effort can't yield a good movie, as we saw with the recent reboot of the Spider-man franchise. Director José Padilha, a veteran from Brazil, and rookie screenwriter Joshua Zetumer come up with a promising premise, in which Robocop isn't a cutting-edge breakthrough, but simply a backward-engineered commodity designed to make robot law enforcement palatable to a malleable American public.
In the rest of the world, robots manufactured by Omnicorp run a martial state where even Iran is kept in line by scary machines, including the gargantuan ED-209s from the last film, as well as man-sized EM-208s. But politicians in the U.S. have barred them from policing domestically, resulting in $600 billion annually in lost revenues for CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton).
The first hour or so is heady stuff, as Detroit detective Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) sees his life turned upside down after an explosion leaves his body in tatters, and comes to grips with the idea of living inside a metal suit. He's certainly got a cool new look, with black armor and a red slit for eyes. (Plus a pair of guns he never has to reload, ever.)
But the movie goes sideways in the second half, with neither the sarcastic humor or the PG-13 action scenes landing with a lot of punch.
Joel Kinnaman is believable as Murphy/Robocop, though he's a mite too pretty to be taken seriously as an anti-hero; the filmmakers repeatedly succumb to temptation to leave his face exposed. (Why exactly do they leave the lower half of his face unprotected?) Gary Oldman is a welcome presence as Dennett Norton, the conflicted scientist put in charge of the Robocop program.
Another thing lacking in the new movie is a hiss-able villain on the order of Clarence Bodicker, the sadistic killer from the original film. Keaton's Sellars is more slimy than hateful, a disreputable Steve Jobs type who likes to control the media. Jackie Earle Haley shows up as Robocop's taunting instructor, but he's a little too mercenary to really get our dander up.
Michael K. Williams and Abbie Cornish are pretty much wasted as, respectively, Murphy's partner and wife, mostly standing on the sidelines and wondering where the man disappeared inside the machine.
Samuel L. Jackson fires surprising blanks as Pat Novack, a demagogic broadcaster who acts as Omnicorp's jingoistic cheerleader. I think the problem is the character is so close to the unhinged talking heads we see on cable news every night, he's too familiar to serve as a cautionary tale.
I don't hate the idea of Hollywood remaking one of the seminal movies from my formative years, but the result is too tame to justify its own existence. There is one jaw-dropping moment in the film that hints of darker, grander themes to come. But it's soon forgotten in a wave of video-game shootouts and one-liners recycled from 1987.