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Robocop

Silly, over-the-top action flicks are so serious these days.  I’d blame Christopher Nolan, who took Batman — the king of camp when George Clooney wore the cowl in ’97 — and made him dark and tortured again, but more importantly, box office platinum again. But Nolan makes good, if humorless, movies; it’s the hacks trying to be like him who are glumming up what ought to be solidly silly action franchises.

And why is everyone so set on sucking all the fun out of Paul Verhoeven’s movies? Verhoeven was sort of the mad jester of action directors in the ’80s and ’90s; his movies were shallow and stupid but also sly and subversive; they were filled with gleefully weird sequences and often deeply savage social commentary; watching a Verhoeven film, you didn’t know if you should laugh, or cry, or just puke.  The first “Kick-Ass” flick had a spark of the Verhoeven spirit; not much else comes close.  But suddenly, all his movies are being revisited. Last year’s humorless remake of “Total Recall” was hardly bearable, then came “Ender’s Game,” which played like an overly serious remake of “Starship Troopers,” and now, a PG-13 “Robocop.”  What’s next?  A dark and gloomy remake of “Showgirls?”  Spare me, please.

To its credit, even though it’s humorless, the new “Robocop” is a lot better than the new “Total Recall.”  The makers have actually taken the time to reimagine the story, instead of just shooting it on darker sets with fewer jokes. As it stands, “Robocop” is a clean, stylish, well-paced science fiction action flick, for about three quarters of its running time.

The storylines are about the same.  In the new one, Michael Keaton (haven’t seen him in a LONG time) is the head of OmniCorp.  He’s had great success selling robotic soldiers (read: drones) to the military, but a limp-wristed liberal senator has passed a bill forbidding his products from being used on American soil.  Meanwhile, Joel Kinnaman is on the trail of a big-time drug dealer who has connection inside the police department when he gets taken out by a car bomb in front of his house.  Keaton sees an opportunity and seizes it; if he can’t sell robots to the police forces of America, he’ll sell half-robots, half-humans.  And thus RoboCop is born.

Gary Oldman does great work as the scientist responsible for developing the human/robot hybrid.  He’s a principled man but also goal-driven; one small step at a time, his principles are compromised by his goals.  While this is first and foremost a big dumb action flick about a robotic assault machine, it also doubles, nicely, as a look at how a principled man comes to do something he swore he’d never do.

But while the old RoboCop was hardly more than a robot with lips, the new version is much more interested in the process of a man becoming a robot, and asking questions about what it means to be a man, and why that’s important in a field like law enforcement.  Easily the best visual effect in the film isn’t in any of the action sequences; it’s when Oldman pulls away all the robotics, and shows Kinnaman exactly how much of his original body is left.  That scene is horrific and fascinating, Cronenberg-esque, even.  There’s also a gripping scene when RoboCop visits his family, and tries to connect with his son, who looks terribly intimidated by the metal monster that used to be his father.  How do you reconnect after something like this?  Is it even possible?

Though it stars a virtual unknown, “Robocop” loads its secondary roster with ringers that make the movie loads of fun.  Jay Baruchel plays OmniCorp’s PR guy.  Jennifer Ehle, doing her best Meryl-Streep-on-a-bad-day impression, is another of Keaton’s henchman (is she capable of doing anything besides unimpressive Meryl Streep impressions?  I have yet to see it.) Abbie Cornish plays Wife of RoboCop, and gets a great deal more screentime than she did in the original (where she hardly existed.) And Samuel L. Jackson pops up periodically as a Glenn Beck media type, ignoring facts and inconvenient opinions while crusading to get the mecha-cops unbanned.  He even gets to drop an MF-bomb, although it’s bleeped out.  Jackie Earle Hailey has some awesome scenes as RoboCop’s trainer, and adversary (he prefers the fully mechanized versions.) Best of all, Michael K. Williams — Omar from “The Wire” — plays Kinnaman’s partner, though I’ve got to say, that’s a missed opportunity.  This movie would’ve been about a hundred times cooler if the roles had been switched, and Omar could’ve become RoboCop.

The movie was humming along nicely, decidedly exceeding my expectations, until the confused and jumbled third act. Did a different screenwriter take over at the 90-minute mark?  We had a solid, well-paced, somewhat graceful story, in which RoboCop is hunting the drug dealer who ordered the hit on him, all the while tracking down the corrupt cops within the PD that made it all possible.  But then RoboCop catches up with the bad guy way too fast, and so we need a new bad guy, and the plot suddenly gets incredible tangled, bordering on incoherent. The first two-thirds are a solid, entertaining, and even smart action movie; the last third is a complete train wreck.

“RoboCop” seems to want to say something updated and relevant about drone technology and where we’re going as a country, comparable to Verhoeven’s campy but sly commentary on Reagan-era corporate economics. The great thing about satire, and comedy in general, is that you can just skewer things; you point out how stupid and ridiculous they are, but you’re not required to offer a better alternative. This new “RoboCop” adopts a more serious tone, but I can’t really figure out what it’s trying to say.  Drones are bad?  People killing people is preferable to robots killing people?  The point of view is muddled and undeveloped, and that’s a weakness.  But one that’s not really all that hard to overlook.  This new RoboCop lacks the nihilistic glee of the old version, which, in the end, is still the preferable version.  But in spite of its failures and mistakes, it gets a number of things right, or at least close to right.  I’d buy that for a dollar.

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