Monday, February 17, 2014

Old Model, New Manufacturer

After being infected by the world's catchiest song this weekend, I also went to see the new remake of Robocop. It will probably be impossible to review it without talking some about the original, and at least casually brushing up against a plot point or two of the new one. So if you're looking for the spoiler-free summary: it was decent, but not great. Good enough to justify the remake (beyond financial reasons), not good enough to be a real triumph.

The rest of you who have either seen the original, or don't care? Come with me.

There are some very smart decisions at the core of the new Robocop. Script writer Joshua Zetumer recognized the commentary buried in the blood and guts of the original, and did a very credible job of updating it to today. Media satire was a small piece of the first film, and it's brought front and center here. Samuel L. Jackson is featured prominently as a loudmouth political talk show host named Pat Novak, and his schtick is brilliantly only a notch or two past the sort of person you see on television today. Corporate greed, also an element of the first film, is also given a modern coat of paint. The corporate evil of this Robocop manipulates politicians and lives by focus groups. It frankly feels like an accurate reflection of reality, rather than a heightened satire of it. (Sigh.)

Smarter still is a decision to change the nature of the main character. The Alex Murphy of the original becomes an emotionless machine, oblivious to his past. The arc of the film is his slow realization of who he once was. The Murphy of this film remembers everything from the moment he wakes up as Robocop, and the film devotes a great deal of time to exploring the real emotional toll of a trauma like that. The emotional consequences figure much more interestingly into this film. Hand-in-hand with that are brushes with philosophy, the nature of free will, heady stuff for the average action movie.

Alas, the film then becomes the average action movie. Somewhere around the halfway point of the film, everyone seems to remember that the audience came to see people get shot and stuff. And while that's not wrong, it's still sad how quickly the movie dispenses with everything that makes it an intriguing improvement on its predecessor. Murphy is purged of his memories by the scientist that built him, and from there the movie follows rather stalwartly in the steps of the original, telling the story of a machine who slowly remembers he's a man.

This part of the movie is far less satisfying than the original for a number of reasons. One is the tame PG-13 rating. This is a violent vendetta movie, forbidden from actually having much violence. Though there are one or two moments I'm shocked they got away with (the reveal of what's really left of Murphy, for example), things simply don't get visceral enough -- particularly if you have in mind the over-the-top insanity of director Paul Verhoeven's original.

Another problem is the unsatisfying array of villains. The original had Ronny Cox as the slimy Dick Jones and Kurtwood Smith as the sadistic Clarence Boddicker. Oh, how you wanted to see those two guys get what's coming to them in the end. Here, Michael Keaton's character of Raymond Sellars is reasonably oily, but not wicked enough to instill real hatred from the audience. And Patrick Garron as Antoine Vallow barely even registers. He's such a non-character (and Murphy's "death" in this film so comparatively tame to the original) that you hardly even care if Murphy catches his own "killer." A third quasi-villain is manufactured out of Jackie Earle Haley's Rick Mattox, but he doesn't quite get there either.

Joel Kinnaman makes for a solid lead, but when the plot shoves Murphy back down into the machine, he doesn't have much to do. Still, there is some bright stars in the cast. I've already mentioned the brilliantly cast Samuel L. Jackson, whose scenes are the hilarious highlights of the film. Also wonderful is Gary Oldman as conflicted scientist Dennett Norton. He injects as much angst and uncertainty into the film as it will allow before taking off on the action rails.

If the movie had stayed the course and continued to "dare to be different," I think it might have ended up as something truly special. Instead, the result starts strong and finishes weak. I'd put it about on par with the original, which I think never tried for lofty heights, but benefited from knowing this and ended up as a fun sort of robosploitation film. This new incarnation of Robocop gets a B-.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

All right, you've pulled me back in the "might very well see it" camp.
Well done.

(And you deserve extra points just for your clever "robosploitation"...)