Saturday, February 15, 2014

Dead Or Alive, You're... Something... Whatever.

2014, MGM Pictures
Starring: Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Keaton, and Abby Cornish
Directed by José Padilha
4 out of 10

We live in the year 2014. Just let that sink in for a second or two. Two-thousand and fourteen. "The Future" which action and science fiction films from the last century attempted to predict (often times more comically than astutely). Yet, here we are in that very future, constantly turning our attention backwards to decades gone by. But, as our society re-purposes the music, movies and fashion trends of the days or yore, we have essentially allowed emerging technology (The Internet, smart phones, drones, etc.) simply to happen to us.

Which brings us to this refashioned and rebooted version of RoboCop, directed by Jose Pahdila (Elite Squad). Here is a movie set in the future (2028, to be exact), yet very reminiscent of a another cyborg cop action film titled, oh let me see... Here it is. That movie was also called RoboCop.

Yes, in 1987, a then relatively unknown Dutch director named Paul Verhoeven made his American debut with a blood-splattered science fiction action film about a cop killed in the line of duty, who is transformed into a computer-driven cyborg defender, seeks revenge on those who murdered him as his memories come flooding back and regains his humanity in the end. RoboCop was essentially a Frankenstein-meets-western revenge flick with robots, cocaine snorting yuppies and laugh-at-the-sadness yucks, all caked in blood, bullets and bombast. It was one hell of a manic, satirical and hyper-kinetic joyride, mixing action, black comedy and pathos into one near-flawless concoction.

This new, updated RoboCop is none of those things. In fact, it's a pretty dull affair. Even if there wasn't the original 1987 film to compare this reboot to (which is an impossibility, given Hollywood's ceaseless desire to recycle itself -  but humor me here), Pahdila's film would still rate as only marginally entertaining; merely perfunctory, at best.

Set in a future Detroit that we're told is the most crime-ridden and violent city in America (yet looks a lot more clean and sedate than the actual, present day Detroit does now), mega-conglomerate Omnicorp is at a crisis crossroads: while their mechanized drones make for near perfect peacekeepers in war ravaged locales such as Tahran, the American electorate ironically won't tolerate their civil liberties to be overseen by gun-toting war-bots. As Samuel L. Jackson's Omnicorp propagandeer Pat Novack bloviates on his pundit-style "news" broadcast, The Novak Element, "Why is America so robophobic?" 

Then Omnicorp's CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) comes up with a nifty idea: he's going to put a man inside a machine in order to assuage public opinion, while also increasing his company's market share. "We're going to give Americans a product they can love; a figure they can rally behind," he proclaims, apparently inspired by a previous night's viewing of Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins. Quite fortuitously for Sellers, incorruptible Detroit detective Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) has just been critically injured within an inch of his life from a car bomb planted by a flunky of Detroit's generically-rendered, gun-running kingpin, Antoine Vallon (Patrick Garrow). Enlisted by Sellars directly, cyber-engineer Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) tells Murphy's wife, Clara (Abby Cornish), that though Alex has lost a leg, an eyeball and all motor functions in the lower half of his body, the good doctor can give her husband a new lease on life. Just sign on the dotted line.

Soon the now mechanized Alex Murphy is being run through a battery of tests, both physical and demographic. While Murphy is put through the ringer by Omnicorp's sneering and seething head gun-toter Mattox (Jackie Earle Haley), Sellars and his PR flak, Tom Pope (Jay Baruchel), strategize on the best way to sell the public on their new movie... er, product. With the former action scenes playing out like big screen versions of first person shooters like Call of Duty (because what's more fun than watching someone else play a video game?), the latter scene play as self-referentially meta, clever by only half. Yeah, yeah. We get it...

Padilha and screenwriter Joshua Zetumer diverge their RoboCop from Verhoven's version almost inversely, which, for a reboot, should be commended. But story-wise, it's pretty weak sauce, as this movie is plagued with characters reciting exposition and emotion-dulling jump cuts. Where the original RoboCop wielded it's snide social satire like a blunt object, in this RoboCop the ham handed commentary on drone warfare so pertinent to today's war-weary realities simply dissolve away well before the film's second act. There's corporate board meetings, televised rallies, a seriously undercooked B-story involving police corruption, and Novak's constant recaps of scenes we've already watched that need attending to. This is tell-not-show movie making at it's most blatant.

In this version of RoboCop we're given more insight into Alex Murphy's home life, but the results never pay off with any real emotional depth. Scenes between Mr. and Mrs. Murphy play more pensive and distraught than loving or endearing, and their son, David (John Paul Ruttan) never really registers as an integral piece of the overall narrative beyond being a generic movie moppet. Later in the film, when Clara pleads with a now robotic Murphy that he needs to speak to their son, we're simply left wondering "Why?" How solid was this family in the first place, when the protagonist's wife seems to be barely holding back tears when she's first introduced?

For his part, Kinnaman gives a serviceable performance as Murphy/RoboCop. In one key scene where Dr. Norton keys Murphy into the reality of how his life will now be as a cyborg (by literally stripping away Murphy's armor down to his head, lungs and remaining right hand), Kinnaman conveys palpable grief at being robbed of everything he once knew of his physical self. We feel for this guy as his eyes well-up with tears, requesting that his family never see him like this. Too bad, though, that this emotional depth doesn't play through the entire film.

(Also, why does this state-of-the-art RoboCop have one exposed human hand? Couldn't Omnicorp spring for a matching black glove, at least?)

Though he has the acting chops - not to mention the tall, slender physique - to play the part of RoboCop, I couldn't help but be a bit distracted by Kinnaman's vocal intonations. It's as if this Swedish-born actor retained the Vanilla Ice-ian gangsta-lite drawl of his fractured and flawed streetwise character from the AMC series, The Killing.

And therein lies the problem with this slickly-made Robo-reboot. As I was watching it, my mind would wander. I kept thinking about at any given point in this plodding film, what would be taking place in its predecessor. I mean here's a film loaded with a grip of talented actors, million dollar production values and Dark Knight-esque orchestra swells, and I was simply bored watching it. I mean head-cocked-to-the-side-resting-on-palm bored. Beyond having no inkling of irony about itself (it's called RoboCop for Christsake!), there was nothing memorable or stirring about this meandering, flat and, quite frankly, bland film (this despite the bursts of rapid, mind-numbing gunfire peppered throughout it). If it weren't for my notes, I would have a hard time recalling any particularly noteworthy moments from this movie a half-an-hour after watching it.

The original RoboCop had moments. It had gravitas. It had characters, lines of dialog and scenes that were (and still very much are) quite memorable. Beyond its dated special effects, the core of the original film's relevance remains intact; a highly entertaining B-movie elevated to greatness by the energy surge that went into it. That film tested boundaries, pushed buttons and, above all else, entertained its audience with panache.

This new RoboCop isn't quite the train wreck most retooled and easily forgotten movies mined from the 1980's are (Total Recall, Footloose, and Red Dawn, for instance), but it isn't a particularly fun film to watch, either. With its lack of charisma (or even interesting villains), José Padilha's RoboCop is simply adequate (though needlessly fussy) movie going fare: a bloodless PG-13 film seemingly designed by committee to appeal to every- and anyone who believes any "old" film can be improved with an new coat of CGI. It's too bad that Hollywood, when looking backwards to make movies for today, can't (or for some reason won't) harness the chutzpah that made the properties their attempting to "rejuvenate" so fresh and exciting in the first place.

As Mattox paraphrases a line delivered better in the original Robocop, "I wouldn't buy that for a dollar." I, however, spent $10 to see this film. I would have taken his advice, if only I knew ahead of time.