Tuesday, March 4, 2014


The “RoboCop” science fiction franchise ran out of steam after its lukewarm third installment in 1993.  The landmark futuristic fantasy never regained its footing when leading man Peter Weller departed after “RoboCop 2” (1990).  “Person of Interest” villain Robert John Burke donned the armor for the third movie.  Afterward, “RoboCop” sought refuge on television.  The sharpshooting cyborg cop meted out justice in 23 episodes of a short-lived Canadian television series from 1994 to 1995 with Richard Eden as Officer Alex Murphy.  In 2001, our armor-clad hero reappeared in the TV mini-series “RoboCop: Prime Directives” with Page Fletcher as the cybernetic crime-stopper.  Twenty-six years after the original “RoboCop,” Sony Pictures and MGM have rebooted the franchise with fair-to-middling results.  Brazilian director José Padilha’s “RoboCop” (** OUT OF ****) casts lanky, Swedish actor Joel Kinnaman as the android-hero that Peter Weller incarnated.  This sleek, glossy, fleet-footed, $100 million dollar sci-fi crime thriller delivers its share of exciting moments.  Nevertheless, Padilha’s polished, but utterly synthetic saga spurns the audacious qualities of its dystopian 1987 predecessor.  Dutch director Paul Verhoeven’s clever yet cynical “RoboCop” remains a must-see masterpiece and its savage, high octane sequel with Weller is a worthwhile second act.
Indisputably, the new “RoboCop” boasts seamlessly CGI-imagery and a starry cast featuring Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Keaton, Gary Oldman, Jay Baruchel, and Jackie Earle Haley.  Sadly, despite its cast and CGI, “RoboCop” manages to be only half as memorable as its first-rate forerunner.  Furthermore, the remake pales by comparison with “RoboCop 2,” but it definitely tops “RoboCop” 3.  Padilha has fashioned an immaculate as well as prudish PG-13 actioneer with considerably less gore than Verhoeven’s R-rated epic.  The corporate and criminal villains in the original dwarf their counterparts in the remake.  Heroes are measured by the villains they have to defeat.  Badder villains make better heroes.  The bad guys in the first “RoboCop” constituted a rogue’s gallery of dastards. None of the villains in the remake can touch them.  The most innovative idea is equipping our crusader with a Batman like motorcycle rather than cramming him into a claustrophobic police cruiser.  Every time Peter Weller sat in a police cruiser, he could only wear the top half of his RoboCop armor.  Basically, the suit was far too big for him to sit in the car. 

The chief difference between the original and the remake is the transition that Detroit detective Alex Murphy takes to emerge as a cybernetic crime-buster.  In the first film, Murphy suffered dreadfully at the hands of sadistic criminal Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith) and his howling hooligans.  Contemporary audiences might shrink at Murphy’s disturbing demise.  Comparatively, things are less odious for Kinnaman.  Instead of his appendages blasted into ground beef by laughing low-lifers, Murphy is simply blown up.  Our incorruptible protagonist and his African-American partner, Jack Lewis (Michael K. Williams of “Snitch”), had been closing in on notorious arms dealer Antoine Vallon (Patrick Garrow of “Nikita”), but were never able to nail him.  Detroit Police Chief Karen Dean (Marianne Jean-Baptiste of “Spy Game”) reprimands Murphy for disobeying her orders about Vallon.  Predictably, the headstrong Murphy refuses to cooperate.  He suspects corrupt cops are shielding Vallon. One evening after he has tucked his son David (John Paul Ruttan) into bed and is about to sleep with his comely wife Clara (Abbey Cornish of “Sucker Punch”), the alarm in his car erupts for no apparent reason.  Unable to remotely disarm the alarm, Murphy is thoroughly surprised when he opens the door, and his car explodes, leaving him on the threshold of death. 

Freshman scenarist Joshua Zetumer dispenses with the graphic torture scene that prostrated Murphy in the original.  Instead, he makes our hero’s near death experience impersonal.  Actually, Zetumer’s method of making Murphy into a casualty so a corporate robotics firm can rebuild him adheres to formula.  According to the formula, the police hero doesn’t climb into a booby-trapped car.  Instead, somebody close to him dies in the vehicle, and our hero must avenge them.  The vintage Glenn Ford movie “The Big Heat” (1953) made best use of this gimmick.  Anyway, greedy OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton of “Beetlejuice”) appropriates Murphy’s mutilated remains with Clara’s consent and convinces his top scientist, Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman of “True Romance”), to reassemble him as a half-man, half-machine juggernaut.  The main obstacle to Sellars’ dream of mobilizing a corps of cybernetic cops in America has been the Dreyfus Act that prohibits the use of robots as police.  America is the only nation that doesn’t use cyborg cops, and conservative television analyst Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson of “Pulp Fiction”) sees this opportunity as a mandate to repeal Dreyfus.  Indeed, the Pentagon has relied on Sellers’ robots in troubled third-world countries, but they can only deploy them overseas.  Sellars schemes to convert Murphy’s tragedy into a public relations triumph that will not only win over Congressional support, but only make the American market his oyster.  Naturally, Seller encounters more than a glitch or two as the harried Dr. Norton struggles to make Murphy’s mangled remains compatible with his shiny robotic hulk.

Several shortcomings undermine the “RoboCop” remake.  First, Joel Kinnaman radiates little charisma as the eponymous hero.  Second, in the original, Murphy’s partner was a tough gal (Nancy Allen) who kicked butt.  Murphy’s sidekick here lacks her tenacity.  Third, Padilha stages an adequate number of shoot-outs, but our hero usually swaps lead with robots.  Fourth, the combat sequences aren’t orchestrated with half of the flair of Verhoeven’s shoot-outs.  Worse than anything else, however, is Padilha’s largely humorless approach.  In the original, a television news cast interrupted the plot periodically with some subversive humor that often qualified as downright misanthropic.  Scenes with Samuel L. Jackson’s boisterous right-wing pundit ranting at intervals are no substitute for those satiric scenes, and Jackson’s insufferable Novak character delivers more wind than wit.  Altogether, this “RoboCop” remake qualifies as tame, lame, with little of the same that set apart the original.

No comments: