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RoboCop (2014)
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by Brett Gallman

"The latest SUX model from the Hollywood assembly line."
2 stars

Like its predecessor, Jose Padilha's (or should I say the studio's?) update of "Robocop" is a critique of corporate America; however, unlike Paul Verhoeven's 1987 cyberpunk masterpiece, its most biting points come from its unwitting insight into the process of commercial development and rebranding. It hasn't the faintest clue, but its very existence mirrors its characters' absurd desire to repackage a killing machine for commercial and demographic appeal: here we have yet another instance of Hollywood recycling and sanitizing Verhoeven, leaving audiences with a slick but soulless retread that's been meticulously engineered into a crowd-pleaser.

This is not to say that the Verhoeven wasn't also a crowd pleaser, what with its rousing score and its comic-book sensibilities; however, that film also had a black heart at its center that peered into a dystopian future and could only laugh at its bleakness. The successor initially seems to be up to the same thing with a cold open on The Novak Report, a supercharged news show whose host (Samuel L. Jackson) is an obvious parody of right-wing network partisans.

Via a field report in Tehran, he attempts to make the case that drone and automaton surveillance are necessary for the American home front as well. During a sequence that represents the film's best flirtation with the original's brand of satire, Novak obliviously notes the locals' embracement of American military force and does his best to downplay a suicide bomber attack that ends with an ED-209 unit gunning down a child in the streets.

Was this funny? Its counterpart scene in the original certainly was, and, while I was inclined to laugh here out of reflex, I wasn't quite sure if I should have been--and the film never assured me one way or the other, even as Novak's broadcast went on to contextualize the new premise of "Robocop": in 2029, America is "robophobic" and supports a senator's long-standing bill that bans robots from law enforcement, much to the chagrin of Omnicorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton).

As corporate weasels are wont to do, however, Sellars attempts to circumvent the bill by jumpstarting a program to put a man into a machine and win over the general public. Enter Detroit Police Officer Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), who suddenly becomes a prime candidate when he runs afoul of a criminal racket that conspires to eliminate him with a car bomb. The explosion nearly kills him, but Omnicorp's scientist Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) salvages his remains and transforms him into Robocop.

Cut to: kick-ass montage of Robocop cleaning up the mean streets of Detroit, right? Well, no, not exactly. It's at this point that the film sharply digresses from the original by exploring its margins. Rather than reanimate a corpse and suppress Murphy's humanity, this Omnicorp's policy is to achieve a balance between the man and the machine. While the diversion is sound and has the potential to fascinate, it amounts to so much wheel-spinning and drowns in techno-jargon. Not slavishly following the original's footsteps and expounding upon its existential horrors is even a touch commendable; unfortunately, this stretch of the film highlights a modern tendency towards over-explanation, right down to Robocop's newly redesigned suit.

He starts out in an approximate recreation of the old suit, of course, but it's predictably laughed off by Sellars, who insists on overhauling the look and outfitting Robocop in all black, a dopey moment that openly invites obvious criticism. For all its effort, the film's satire never achieves more potency than it unwittingly does here. One can imagine the Hollywood engaging in similar boardroom powwows while conceiving this film. I shudder to think of the hotshot execs looking to update the campy old Verhoeven and attempting to resell "Robocop" for a modern audience that's been fed a steady diet of grim and gritty retreads during the past decade, but it seems obvious that someone involved here shares a little bit of Sellars's disdain towards the old model.

Maybe calling it "disdain" is a little too harsh because that would imply a distinct emotion or feel for the material; instead, there's only a sense of bewilderment, as if everyone involved quickly signed off on the idea of remaking "Robocop" before they realized oh, shit--how do we actually do that? Gulp. I'm not sure if anyone found an answer outside of the obvious, surface-level affectations: 25 years of cinematic technological advancements allows this Robocop to be flashier, and the studio has assembled an impressive cast to lend some prestige to the endeavor.

Beyond that, though, the film lacks direction and form that effuses from the script level, where the push and pull between revering the original and striking off from it is noticeable. Retaining the social commentary and again aiming the crosshairs at corporate America keeps the redux from becoming a brain-dead action vehicle, but it lacks Verhoven's glib, gutsy approach to the takedown. Simply put, this "Robocop" isn't ballsy enough. Not only does it miss the literal blood-and-guts viscera thanks to PG-13 constraints, but it also misses the sharp teeth that chewed up Reaganite America, spit it out, pissed on it, and laughed about it. Unable to go any grimmer and grittier than Verhoeven, Padilha and company hit a wall that they attempt to blast through with some obvious musings on backhanded corporate shenanigans.

They might as well be firing rubber bullets though, especially since they take their sweet time in condemning its corporate overlords. Novak's introduction frames Sellars as an ironic hero, but there are moments when the film itself seems to believe it as well; initially, he seems like a tortured genius being hamstrung by an old bow-tie wearing fuddy-duddy congressman. As time elapses, Keaton becomes more obviously smarmy, but his intentions seem good enough. After all, he demands that his lead scientist perfect his creation so he'll pass muster with legislation (and to subject audiences to that tedious second act, complete with Murphy's training exercises and the like), whereas Bob Morton, Dick Jones, and The Old Man probably would have shoved him right onto the streets without much of an inspection at all (that OCP was a company that peddled the 6000-SUX, after all).

Verhoven may have delivered his satire with sledgehammer subtlety, but that sledgehammer took no prisoners. The remake's content to play it a little straighter, with the more overtly satiric intrusions playing like obligatory notes, not unlike the original's shoehorned catch-phrases and theme music. By the time the film gets around to replacing Murphy's conflict with OCP at the forefront by revealing Sellars to be the slimy prick we all suspected him to be, it's met with an ambivalent shrug because he hasn't engendered that much trust, nor has he inspired much contempt--he's just sort of there as a functioning plot device because the film's gotta restage that climactic showdown with an OCP officer.

If the film as a whole is similarly functional, it's just barely so. The cast could be among the best of any movie this year, but let's hope no others waste such an ensemble like "Robocop," which merely asks its players to be cogs in a leaden machine that lurches and stomps its way through whatever thematic elements that crop up. Need to get across the film's acerbic musings on drone warfare? There's a Samuel L. Jackson monologue for that. A sequence that shows the Murphy family's turmoil? There's a few scenes with a weepy Abbie Cornish for that. A moment to explore the philosophical schism between corporate America and the scientific community? There's plenty of banter between Keaton and Oldman for that. The players are fine but could use more room to explore this stuff beyond their surface level.

In fact, the film is so misguided that it seemingly misses that its most important relationship is between Murphy and his creator. A couple of sequences in the film stand out as particularly resonant, and each features Oldman. One is his introduction that presents the purest form of his work: a double amputee plays his guitar with his new robotic hands, only to struggle when his emotions cause his brain chemistry to go haywire (and, just in case you don't get the point of this, the danger of human emotions is reiterated once Murphy becomes Robocop).

The other scene finds Norton and Murphy meeting for the second time after the latter's resuscitation; after fleeing the scene in horror, the latter gets shut down and returned to the lab, where he's forced to confront that this process has reduced him to a head, an arm, and a cybernetically modified brain. The two hold a conversation with Murphy in this dehumanized state, and the staggering, terrifying visual is offset by Oldman's quiet dignity when he implores Murphy not to pull the plug. If there's a sustained, resounding thematic thread woven through "Robocop," it's Norton's struggle to balance his ambition with his moral compass--it's just too bad the film is more interested in skipping through the motions and preordained story beats to notice it.

Even the most important stuff in Murphy's own story is glossed over: there's a requisite reunion scene with his family that falls flat, while his quest to track down his would-be killer become a footnote. Patrick Gallow is Vallon, an arms dealer with crooked cop connections, and he;s such a non-entity that I feel like I shouldn't breathe his name in the same sentence with Clarence Boddicker, lest Kurtwood Smith put a boot in my ass and toss me from the back of a van. The less said about this subplot the better, which is pretty much how the film itself treats it--as a mere formality in a hasty police procedural that briefly crops up in a movie called "Robocop," a baffling choice made all the more so by Kinnaman's more prominent presence behind the visor. Technically, he's scripted with more opportunities to emote, but he's mostly just stiff and robotic, which only makes sense once he becomes more machine than man (it takes about an hour for this film to lumber to this point).

Arranging it all is Padilha, an inspired import much in the same way Verhoeven was. History doesn't repeat here, though: aesthetically, Padilha does carry over his frenetic, street-level approach to action sequences, but they've been hosed off their grime and grit (and, during one sequence, lighting), much like the city of Detroit, here optimistically re-imagined as a pretty decent place to live (an aesthetic choice that doesn't help to sell the need for an automaton like Robocop--I mean, if Detroit can get its shit together, how bad can it be?).

This choice of directors becomes less inspired once you slowly realize that he's essentially been brought in to smooth Verhoeven's edges and deliver a safe, digestible product, much in the same way Len Wiseman xeroxed "Total Recall" into a bland, unfussy actioner. To his credit, Padilha retains the faintest hint of his voice, and, given the thematic preoccupations of the "Elite Squad" films, it's easy to assume that he had an interest in tackling the fascist implications of drone warfare and turbocharged police states.

Too bad--apparently, the film's own corporate overlords seemed to have a different idea, leaving the film with no discernable vision: the drone stuff never quite comes together, nor is Murphy's journey towards humanity all that resonant or meaningful. You're left with a film that mirrors Omnicorp's ideal Robocop: an auto-piloted, soulless piece of work guided by focus groups and demographics.

It exists but can hardly be considered alive in any meaningful way; it barely thrills, never shakes, and shuttles you out of the theater sufficiently amused. You can almost hear it thanking you for your cooperation as you exit and never think about it again.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=23987&reviewer=429
originally posted: 02/11/14 14:32:01
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User Comments

3/28/16 Aj wales Plodding dull remake with no style. Actors look bored. No zip in this. 2 stars
3/10/15 dftpizza Not bad 4 stars
8/16/14 reptilesni Emo-cop. 1rst Robocop was programmed with a floppy disc & a VHS tape, this took an hour 1 stars
5/31/14 Meep Rather boring, too controlled, low aesthetic 2 stars
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  12-Feb-2014 (PG-13)
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