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Non-Review Review: RoboCop (2014)

José Padilha’s RoboCop reboot is much better than the lame duck attempt to adapt Total Recall a few years back. It’s a functional action film, structured well enough to stand on its own two feet as a science-fiction thriller. There are the obligatory explosions and CGI, but there’s also a clear enough story populated by reasonably well-drawn characters with just the faintest hint of social commentary at the core. It is solid and functional on its own terms, even if it suffers in comparison to its source material.

Robocop 2.0...

Robocop 2.0…

Of course, it does leave open vquestions about the logic in adapting Paul Verhoeven films for wider audiences, if adapting amounts to stripping out all the bits that made them so iconic in the first place. The biggest problem with this contemporary take on RoboCop is the weighty seriousness of it all, the crippling sense that the movie desperately wants to be taken seriously. Many of the changes from Verhoeven’s classic feel like attempts to avoid derision or mockery.

When Omnicorp CEO Raymond Sellars views the iconic silver-and-black armour associated with the character, he dismisses it as outdated or absurd. “People don’t really know what they want until you tell them,” he informs his marketing lackey. “Make him black.” The idea is that cladding the cybernetic law enforcement official in black makes him easier to take seriously. Putting him on a stylish Batpod-inspired motorbike makes him “cooler” for modern audiences.

Ensuring that we see far more of Joel Kinnerman’s face than we did of Peter Weller back in the Verhoeven original keeps him relatable. In fact, the reboot has to have the evil Omnicorp executives explicitly de-humanifying Alex Murphy over the first half-hour of the film in a variety of very explicit sequences – as if it doesn’t trust the audience to comprehend the horror of what Omnicorp have done to this former police officer. It feels more pandering and generic than Verhoeven’s original approach, making Murphy’s arc from human-to-robot-to-human a lot more obvious and lot less effective.

Would you buy that for a dollar?

Would you buy that for a dollar?

However, arguably the biggest hint of the film’s insecurity is in RoboCop himself. Verhoeven’s classic realised the camp absurdity of a robotic cybernetic law enforcement official who seemed to move in jerks and fits and starts. The actor was hindered by the costume, which lent Robocop a disjointed sense of movement. He looked ridiculous, but that was  the entire point. It was meant to be absurd.

The reboot seems less comfortable with itself. All of a sudden, RoboCop is no longer a weird monstrosity prone to lumber into crime scenes, but a make-shift superhero. He can run like an Olympic athlete, and leap several stories at a time. There’s a sense the movie is desperately trying to convince us that RoboCop is more “bad ass” than “ridiculous”, and the film tries too hard. These CGI-heavy sequences look absurd, but without the sense that they were intended as such. Instead, it seems like RoboCop desperately wants to be taken seriously, which paradoxically makes it much harder to shrug off the absurdities.

Verhoeven’s sense of humour is almost wiped entirely from the film, relegated primarily to inserts featuring Samuel L. Jackson as conservative pundit Michael Novak. Jackson is great, and the film really comes to life in these spoof sequences. The fact that these inserts don’t seem as ridiculous as they did in the original demonstrates how far Verhoeven was ahead of the time. Novak might have access to more advanced technology, but he’s a pundit who would seem quite at home on contemporary American television – cutting off politically hostile guests mid-sentence and framing questions like “why is America so robo-phobic?”

"So we're agreed... Batman is still cooler?"

“So we’re agreed… Batman is still cooler?”

Connecting the development of RoboCop to decidedly contemporary concerns like the use of drones or digitised warfare is a very clever hook – it’s something that justifies the decision to revisit this American cult classic. Broaching the topic is fantastic, but the film never really takes the topic to its logical conclusion. Instead, it feels like it’s been grafted on to the outside of the story – with most of that political commentary confined to the opening and closing sequences.

Sadly, these sequences are the exception rather than the rule. Even the film’s portrayal of Detroit feels ridiculously generic and simplified. Setting the original RoboCop in Detroit was inspired social commentary as the city was caught in the midst of a huge economic depression and social collapse. The same is arguably true in 2014, but RoboCop seems afraid to even acknowledge the concept. Instead, it seem more likely that it’s set in Detroit because the first film was.

Even the structure of the movie seems paradoxically simplified and less elegant than its predecessor. Michael Keaton is absolutely fantastic as corrupt corporate executive Sellars, but the movie’s climax turns him into a generic cut-out villain in order to drive the plot. The movie’s climax is structured around the idea that a big action sequence is necessary, without giving too much thought into how that action sequence works within the logic of the plot. So Sellars, who is portrayed as an extremely savvy and canny sociopath, suddenly morphs into a generic action movie baddy at the right point so the film can have a satisfying ending.

Crowd control...

Crowd control…

The plot itself is somewhat less nuanced and sophisticated than its predecessor, but this also makes it all feel a bit disjointed. The film incorporates classic baddies like the company executives and the local crime lords, but it never allows them to overlap or interact directly as they did in the original RoboCop. While having the two linked up might feel like something of a plot contrivance, it allows the original film to flow smoothly and elegantly. As a result, the movie feels a little stitched together, as it tries to connect Alex Murphy’s war on organised crime with his move against corporate crime.

Still, for all these very serious problems, the remake works better than one might expect. The cast is absolutely fantastic. Gary Oldman and Michael Keaton stand out among a talented cast of performers. While the villains aren’t as fleshed out as they were in the original, Jennifer Ehle and Jay Baruchel make suitably slimy corporate lackeys. Jackie Earle Haley does a lot to establish a supporting villain, even if the character’s dramatic pay-off is unsatisfying. Michael K. Williams is charming as Murphy’s former partner.

And while the character work is a bit rote – Murphy’s human-to-robot-to-human arc is incredibly predictable and perfectly linear – the movie does hit the necessary beats. It hits all the checkboxes necessary for the somewhat convoluted story to work. Alex Murphy gets to have a touching reunion with his kid, his wife has confrontations with the executives, his doctor is suitably ethically conflicted by everything that is going on.

A story that really grabs you...

A story that really grabs you…

And there are some clever little moments here. In particular, the script plays off Keaton’s iconic screen role as Batman. He suggests that RoboCop should be manufactured in black, echoing Christian Bale’s “does it come in black?” from The Dark Knight. The movie’s climax is a rather nice inversion of the climax from Batman, with Michael Keaton’s character hiding on top of a building waiting patiently for a rescue helicopter while a superhero works his way through the henchmen on the floors below.

(While the script does manage to hit all these beats, there are several lingering plot contrivances. Why wait until a few minutes before announcing RoboCop of the world to conduct a vital medical procedure? Why does the villain turn out the lights in his secret villain headquarters when RoboCop can see in the dark anyway?)

José Padilha’s direction is also effective. Padihla maintains an impressive sense of momentum, and handles some decidedly deft scene transitions. Taken as a whole, the movie looks pretty fantastic – barring the questionable cosmetic choices involving the title character, the film has an impressive production design. There is an occasional sense that screen is a bit cluttered with CGI and explosions, but it works a lot better than many contemporary action films.

There's never a RoboCop when you need one...

There’s never a RoboCop when you need one…

RoboCop is a perfectly serviceable action film on its own merits. It just doesn’t feel like a necessary upgrade.

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8 Responses

  1. I haven’t seen this one, entirely because I’ve been avoiding it. You make me want to continue doing just that, more or less, no matter its serviceability. 🙂

  2. Great review yo, I really wanted to hate this film because most of the footage and images prior to its release just didn’t sit well with me. It’s not nearly as cool as the original, but as you said this film is WAY better than that recent Total Recall remake. This update was pretty decent, the new RoboCop if pretty cool once you get through the initial transformation stage, though the stand-out performances come from Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton and Samuel L. Jackson.

    • Yep, I think you’re right. Good performances, and “pretty decent” is how I would describe it. It’s not a ringing endorsement, but this is February, so we’ll take what we can get.

  3. I had a pretty fun time watching this, and I think you know I wasn’t looking forward to this at all. José Padilha is somebody I will be looking at in the future. Very Pleasant surprise, great review 😀

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