Sunday, February 23, 2014

"RoboCop" (2014)

Starring Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman and Michael Keaton
Written by Joshua Zeturner
Directed by Jose Padilha
Rated PG-13 - Violence, language
Running Time: 118 Minutes

In the future, much of the violence in the world has been pacified by robotic combat drones from the powerful Omnicorp company. The only place this hasn't happened is in the United States, where public fear of drones has led to the passing of a law banning their use domestically. Realizing that this is costing the company money, CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) happens upon the brilliant idea to skirt the law by putting a man inside of a machine.

Omnicorp finds its man in Detective Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) of the Detroit Police. After he and his partner go after a local drug lord named Vallon (Patrick Garrow), Vallon puts out a hit on Murphy. A bomb is placed under Murphy's car, and Murphy himself is gravely injured. His wife Clara (Abby Cornish) is approached by Omnicorp's Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) who proposes she allow him to save Alex's life by giving him his robotic replacement body.

At first, Murphy's transformation is only a mixed success. His humanity, it seems, gets in the way of his effectiveness compared to completely robotic officers. Sellars orders Norton to "fix it," and Murphy gradually becomes less human and a better cop.

But this takes its toll both on Norton's conscience, and on Murphy's relationship with his wife and son. As Murphy's popularity skyrockets, so do Omnicorp's profits, and as the repeal of the law banning robotic law enforcement approaches the question comes into play: Where does the machine end and the man begin?

It can often be difficult to review a remake of a favorite film. Now, I don't say that in the sense of feeling personally slighted by the mere existence of the remake. Honestly, if you feel that way then the problem isn't the movie or its makers... the problem is you. But, what I mean to say is that it can be difficult to judge the remake on its own merits rather than simply comparing it to the original.

And perhaps that's inevitable, since we are talking about a new version of something that already exists. Some remakes hew too closely to the original, while others often exist with almost no semblance of the familiar property. "RoboCop" 2014 strikes a rather fine balance between acknowledging the original and striking its own path.

So is "RoboCop" 2014 any good? Meh. It's not bad, and parts of it are surprisingly good, but as a whole it didn't quite do much for me. One of the things that made the original so much fun is its absolutely biting satire and this new version has a few brief attempts at modernizing that idea but it mostly falls short. Samuel L. Jackson appears as Pat Novak, a TV news commentator not unlike Bill O'Reilly, and while more often than not he is used merely for exposition, there are a couple of moments that come close to the original's penchant for skewering media and the news.

In this version, Alex Murphy is a detective rather than a patrol officer. His investigation into Vallon's crime empire leads him afoul of corrupt officers within the department. Here, Murphy is aware of his identity after his transformation, and initially has much more of his personality and emotions intact. But the story ultimately goes in similar directions as the original - Murphy must overcome his programming, override the machine, to restore himself.

In this version, Omnicorp isn't concerned with constructing a new city in place of Detroit, but with the profits to be had by constructing a nationwide robotic police force. Robocop is their big marketing push to prove to the public that the concept is sound, and it's those profits that drive the entire project. This, indeed, is part of one of the problems in the movie. This version of Detroit doesn't seem all that bad, so why do they really need RoboCop? Is the movie trying to say that RoboCop really is an empty marketing ploy?

This new version also juggles more characters than the original, including the subplot involving corrupt officers. That can sometimes mean that Murphy feels like a secondary character in his own movie, as we spend a lot of time with other people, especially the Omnicorp characters, as they discuss Murphy and their plans for him.

Casting is quite impressive. Everyone here does a fine job with their specific roles, even if the parts are smaller. Kinnaman does well enough as Murphy, though he's regularly outshone by Oldman and Keaton and even Jackson. But that's hardly fair, since those actors are generally just awesome to have around. Kinnaman does his best work when he's initially confronted with the reality of his situation, and there are a few moments where he really nails the fear, anger and sadness Murphy feels over what's been done to him and how it will affect his family. Kinnaman also gets a few moments to shine in his chemistry with Murphy's partner, Lewis (Michael K. Williams).

The action sequences strive to be a little creative. Director Jose Padilha likes to let his camera move around and keep his characters moving as well. But, these sequences have a tendency to feel very "videogame-y" since we often move into RoboCop's perspective and we see his software displays giving information about the battle and it looks quite a bit like a HUD one might see in the latest "Call of Duty" or some such. Still, these sequences aren't bad, it just feels somewhat artificial and jarring to see them interspersed with traditional action movie footage.

For all the attempts to make these sequences visually impressive, Murphy rarely feels like he is in danger, which makes it difficult to care. During his assault on Vallon's hideout, the villain is quick to note RoboCop's weakness to bullets of a certain calibre, and then Murphy wades right through Vallon's men taking round after round with little damage.

Pacing is also an issue. The film takes its time for a good chunk of the proceedings, then sort of races to the finish. The ending feels rushed, and the final confrontation between Murphy and Sellars feels a little tacked on. At least in the original, the criminal conspiracy within OCP allowed the movie to feel more cohesive. Here, with unrelated subplots, the film feels meandering and lacks focus.

While this new "RoboCop" has enough differences from the original to stand on its own, it ultimately feels like a somewhat watered down version. The script lacks the biting wit of the original, and it juggles a few too many characters and subplots that feel like a distraction. Even without the satire element, this story needed a sharper focus. As is, it's a competent sci-fi action film with some good performances and cool effects, but that's all it is.

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