Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Robocop


ROBOCOP: Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Abbie Cornish, directed by Jose Padilha (108 min.)

I've learned to give up the fight against the remake.  Remakes, or re-"imaginings" of old, classic films of our youth are going to happen, no matter how high you or I might stand or how loudly we may shout.  Hollywood is a business, and they are selling brands, so to resist remakes is to push that boulder up the hill and never make it to the top.  That being said, would it kill these remakes to come with a little imagination, or a little energy, or maybe just an ounce of noticeable effort?  Where my eyes glaze over is when I watch a dull and lifeless remake of a far superior film.  The most recent version of Total Recall springs to mind, an unmitigated disaster of a remake.  The film had no heart and no soul and didn't try, hoping that super-duper CGI and loud noises would mask its inferiorities.  No such luck.

Remakes are almost never comparable to their predecessor, and most are just plain bad films from top to bottom.  I took all of these feelings in with me to see Robocop, the new version of a classic piece of 80s science fiction, which was full of wit and biting satire and gore and brutality.  I set the bar low from the start, then the PG-13 rating dropped said bar even lower.  But a funny thing started to happen to me early on in Robocop: I started actually watching this version.  So many times heading into these remakes it's easy to sit and scoff and compare each and every little thing to the original, because then it's easy to label this new version as inferior.  I was all ready to hold this version of Robocop right up next to the 1987 film and tear it to pieces, but director Jose Padilha and his cast would not allow it.

The story in its essence is still there.  Joel Kinnaman, taking over for Peter Weller, plays Alex Murphy. This time around, Murphy is not a greenhorn cop but a capable undercover detective working to bring down some organized crime in this futuristic Detroit.  One night he is nearly killed outside his home when a bomb explodes on his car, and his remains are offered up to a corporate machine looking to implement new robotic technology into the Detroit police force.

The Corporation, Omnicorp, is headed by a megalomaniac in training, Raymond Sellars, played with some verve by the criminally underemployed Michael Keaton.  Sellars wants to borrow from the robotic technology the American military has been using overseas to build a brand of new crime fighter the American people can get behind.  One could almost see a political run behind Sellars' motivations here.  Sellars is meeting resistance from a bureaucrat whose anti-robot stance is backed by a bill in Congress.  Sellars sees Murphy in the suit as a loophole, so he employs - or, maybe, twists the arm - of Dr. Norton (Gary Oldman) to build a robot suit around the remnants of Murphy.  His brain and head, his lungs, and his hand survived the blast, and they are encased in a hi-tech new version of the Robocop suit of armor.  It is slick and, most of all, not distracting in its differences from the original.  

Enough about the suit and the mechanics of the plot and so forth, what I admire more than anything about this new version of Robocop is, I think, the effort of everyone involved.  This is not a sleepwalking exercise or a cash grab by any means.  Real ideas are at work here, and I admire Padilha, the actors, and the writing team for giving it a shot.  Keaton is clearly having fun, and Oldman is solid as the soul of a film that could have easily had none.  This time around, we get much more of Murphy's family, his son and his wife played by Abbie Cornish.  There is also an interesting continual bit concerning Murphy's brain, his emotions, and his cognitive awareness throughout.  Rather than having the slate wiped clean from the get go, Murphy has to face the fact he is no longer truly human.  He will no longer be a normal father or husband.  While the satirical bite of the first film is mostly absent, Samuel L. Jackson has a recurring role as a television political analyst that heightens the geopolitical and corporate evildoer subtext of the picture.

Listen to that, talking about geopolitics and subtext while talking about a remake of Robocop!  I never would have thought such a thing.  Things aren't perfect by any means, mainly concerning the muddled and rather lukewarm presence of villains all the way through.  There is no big bad street criminal for Robo to fight.  Most of his police work is glossed over too.  But things aren't overwhelmed by a full-on CGI assault on the senses.  The effects are tasteful and used only when they need to be, allowing the viewer to take in the fact that they are seeing actual places and things rather than all green screens.

Maybe it was because my bar was set so low that I came out of Robocop with a nice feeling, but I don't think so.  There is a nice film and a competent remake here.  It isn't some sort of instant classic, and it won't have the pop culture personality of the original in twenty years, but I doubt anyone involved expected it to be.  They went in with the right attitude, and their energy in front of and behind the camera elevates what could have been a disaster to a pleasant February entertainment.  One of the best compliments these reboots can ask for is that the audience stopped thinking about the original somewhere along the way.  I definitely did early on in this new Robocop.  If remakes would try at least this much, they wouldn't be so unbearable for the most part.

B