Monday, February 17, 2014

Review: RoboCop (2014)

RoboCop (2014)

It's been too long since I saw the original RoboCop, but even now, I can distinctly recall it being a far superior film to this soulless retread. Not only was it kick-ass and brutal, it was wickedly smart, especially by the standards of an R-rated '80s action flick. It was an incisive and often quite funny commentary on Reagan-era yuppie greed and the military-industrial complex that pulled no punches, but also avoided making its bad guys into one-dimensional Captain Planet villains. It stands as one of the greatest science fiction films ever made, meaning that the makers of this film had a lot to live up to. Unlike the makers of last year's flawed-but-still-good Carrie remake (which, in hindsight, I may have overrated a bit), here they decided to completely change up most of the plot, updating its commentary to the War on Terror and the controversial use of drones on the battlefield, as well as the public relations campaign that the corporate bad guys wage to win support for RoboCop. In the hands of smarter filmmakers, an update of RoboCop's decidedly '80s satire to the present day could've been a classic as great as the original.

Sadly, what we get instead is a dull-witted, watered-down action film that doesn't even have a lot of good action scenes that would've otherwise allowed it to work as "big dumb fun". Big ideas are brought up that each make sense on their own, but they are never capitalized upon, wasted in favor of a convoluted story about police corruption. Interesting things are only happening because we're being told that they're happening, with almost none of it having any impact on the film's story. Good actors like Michael Keaton, Abbie Cornish, and Samuel L. Jackson are wasted, and leading man Joel Kinnaman has less personality than his robot suit.

This last point is a particularly grave sin, given that this film's different take on Detective Murphy as still having his human personality means that Kinnaman has to carry a number of key story beats that Peter Weller didn't have to in the original. He proves himself unable to accomplish this task. Sure, he acquits himself well when he's playing an emotionless robot; one of this film's most chilling scenes is when his wife and son greet him when he's presented to the public, and he ignores them in favor of doing the job he's been programmed to do. Unfortunately, he proceeds to act like that throughout the entire film, even when his character is supposed to be displaying real human emotion. Ironically, Kinnaman's performance would've been better suited for the original version of RoboCop, where the character was, from the start, little more than an automaton remade in Murphy's image as opposed to a still-living man inside a machine.

The film's attempts to replicate and update the original's satire don't fare much better. Samuel L. Jackson's jingoistic cable news pundit Pat Novak is the vehicle for much of this, and while he was very entertaining and was clearly having fun with the role, it felt as though it belonged in a completely different movie. Nothing Novak says has any bearing on the plot here except to provide some shaky world-building for its near-future setting. For example, we get a nice little action scene at the beginning set in Iran that tells us that the US has invaded and occupied that nation, but this detail serves no role in the plot other than to tell us that this is the future!!! Nowhere in the rest of the movie is the invasion of Iran even mentioned. Furthermore, the role of OmniCorp, the ostensible villains here, feels peripheral until the third act, with the main plot revolving around crooked cops selling seized firearms to gangsters. The reveal that OmniCorp is evil is both pulled out of nowhere and obvious to anybody who's seen the original, and here, it feels like it was shoehorned in simply because this is a RoboCop movie and OmniCorp has to be the bad guy. Worse, it doesn't even mesh with the police corruption storyline, which takes place largely independently of OmniCorp's influence.

Even the action scenes were uninteresting. I've never seen any of Jose Padilha's prior films, but here in his Hollywood debut, he shows none of the style that people had been talking about. The action here is just dull PG-13 action with an extra helping of shaky-cam. One fight in a darkened room, illuminated solely by muzzle flashes, might have been stylish on paper but instead comes off as an incomprehensible mess. The special effects were at least decent, as befitting a film that cost $100 million, but most of the money shots (most notably the fight with several ED-209 mini-mechs) were spoiled in the trailer, so go watch that if you want to see the best action scenes from this.

Oh, and one last thing: speaking of the ED-209s, they may well have been one of the most stunning and gratuitous examples of this film missing the point. In the original, those ten-foot-high walking tanks may have looked cool, but they were startlingly inept at their intended purpose, with broken software that got innocent people killed (in an awesome scene, I must add) and an inability to navigate stairs. It was a pointed jab at the military-industrial complex's love of fancy machinery whose chief purpose was to win government contracts, regardless of whether or not it actually worked. In the remake, however, the ED-209s really are as badass as they look. They move with fluidity and grace, they help pacify Iran, and they do some serious damage to RoboCop. Given this film's attempt to criticize drone warfare, a scene where an ED-209 goes haywire on some civilians or even US soldiers (maybe after being hacked, perhaps?) would've been brilliant.

Score: 2 out of 5

To be honest, the only reason I'm not giving this a 1 is because I knew it was gonna be garbage the moment I saw the first trailer, and because some decent scenes and ideas here and there saved it from being a total waste of my time. Still, my recommendation is to watch the far more satisfying original instead. This is the worst kind of dumb action movie, one that thinks it has a brain in its head but instead embarrasses itself.

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