(USA, 118 min.)
Dir. José Padilha, Writ. Joshua Zetumer
Starring: Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Abbie Cornish, Jackie Earle Haley, Jennifer Ehle, Jay Baruchel, Samuel L. Jackson.
An early film class I took at Queen’s featured one of the most memorable lectures of my studies. It was one of the first weeks of a second-year course on film theory and criticism, and the class was particularly excited because the lecture for the week focused on an unexpected title: RoboCop. More fun than watching Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 sci-fi actioner, though, was sitting in the lecture in which a popcorn movie was explained as art. The professor earnestly zeroed in on the opening credits, freeze-framing a seemingly inconsequential second of screentime in which the word “RoboCop” appears in kitschy ’80s graphics. The “o” (the middle one) happens to sit atop a building that figured in the centre of the frame. Hence, the penetrative power of RoboCop (or something of that variety) foreshadows the intelligent critique of masculinity that courses throughout the film. To which a blunt and baffled student replied, “It’s RoboCop…”
Yes, RoboCop, the original, is an entertaining film that should not be taken seriously. It’s fun, it’s silly, it’s great action, and it’s well done, but it isn’t art. RoboCop is entertainment pure and simple. RoboCop, the remake, doesn’t take itself too seriously, either, and it’s all the better for it. The film could nevertheless fuel a lecture of its own, though, thanks to its contribution to the Hollywood machinery.
There isn’t much need for a return to RoboCop. The original series petered out twenty years ago and successive attempts to revive the franchise on television didn’t spark much interest. 2014, however, has taken Hollywood a significant distance as far as it concerns visual effects, so a premise founded upon machinery might merit a revision given the new opportunities and technology available to soup up the metal man with a badge. Apple churns out revisions iThings more often than necessary, so another RoboCop hardly adds to the pile of junk in Reboot World.
This RoboCop redo might not exceed the original, but it’s a good film in its own right. It differs enough from the original so that die-hard fans won’t feel slighted and it has just a few nods to the 1987 film that honour RoboCop’s origins without feeling overly self-referential. Helmed by Brazilian director José Padilha (Elite Squad 2), this RoboCop is high-energy entertainment. It’s loud, brash, solid and clunky, which is exactly what RoboCop should be.
Joel Kinnaman (“The Killing”) steps into the roboshoes of Peter Weller and does a capable job leading the way. Murphy isn’t the flashiest of roles to make the transition from TV sidekick to leading man, for RoboCop calls upon Kinnaman to shed his personality for much of the film and let his face be little more than a cover for the machine, much like a case adds personality to an iPhone. Kinnaman lets just enough pathos slip through, though, so that there’s some hint of humanity underlying the film. It’s not a case of the brass balls original that might inspire a full lecture on masculinity: this redo is safe piece of extravagant diversion.
The effects of RoboCop alone merit the return to the story of man and machine. As Murphy is transformed into a human-robot hybrid by Dr. Norton (Gary Oldman) at the behest of techno mogul Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton, camping it up to a delightful degree) and his group of minions (the fun pair of Jennifer Ehle and Jay Baruchel), RoboCop’s body assumes humanlike agility and dexterity. (A scene of a prototype patient playing the guitar with nimble robot fingers offers an early highlight for the seamlessness of the special effects.) The effects are far more convincing than they are in the 1987 film, and the advance furthers the remake’s account for how much technology has progressed and transformed the power of creative minds. This RoboCop looks sleeker and stronger than its predecessor does and Kinnaman’s new suit of armour is snazzier and more in-tune with today’s plugged in culture. It’s a product of the future while Verhoeven’s film is a product of the past (and can still be enjoyed as such), yet it doesn’t even resort to the gimmick of 3D.
Visual special effects aside, however, one can’t help but wonder if RoboCop will be the same sensation in 2014 as it was in 1987. The visual effects are really the only way in which the redo outdoes the original, and a 27-year-old film can’t be faulted for the technological limitations of its time. (The original film is impressive in spite of its age.) This RoboCop is a messy affair with unwieldy plotlines, awkward pacing, and tiresome family mush that suggest the film has less brains than brawns.
There are some smart bits, though, as this RoboCop has more than just a fresh coat of paint. The premise of the man-turned-machine, for one, feels more relevant than ever before. RoboCop’s take on America’s imperialism via war and technology could easily be set today, rather than in the year 2028 in which it unfolds. As characters like Jennifer Ehle’s Liz are tethered to mobile devices for most of the duration of the film, RoboCop’s ultra-technologically-endowed body doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch from humans strapped to the electronic lease of contemporary conveniences that are ultimately controlling them. RoboCop is, as Dr. Norton casually puts it when he rewires Murphy’s brain, a product of the “illusion of free will” that trickles through democratic cultures ruled by corporations and other Bush-era villains with a cartoonishness comparable to Raymond Sellars.
The film also renews the media-savviness of RoboCop by inviting Samuel L. Jackson to adopt the role of Pat Novak and do a fun bit of grandstanding as a FOX News-like commentator. RoboCop finds a winner in Jackson from the film’s opening frame when the roar of the MGM lion is replaced by the puttering “bup-bup-bup”s of Pat Novak as he warms up for the show—RoboCop immediately reminds the audience not to take it too seriously. Jackson is easily the best special effect of the film as he helps RoboCop tread lightly on social satire while consistently remaining a full-fledged popcorn pic. He sprouts buzzwords and articulates RoboCop’s satire with such Howard Beale-ish gusto that one can never take the film too seriously, but it sometimes helps to have a reminder that this is just a piece of fiction when some of the footage on the Novak show feels far too real for comfort.
The comedic coating to RoboCop is refreshing, for it’s nice to see a redo that avoids the franchise formula of mass-production that rebrands everything dire and dark. Don’t go looking too hard for the film to penetrate cultural mythology (or, for that matter, to hit letters of the opening credits with an ultra-macho thrust), for this RoboCop is loud, explosive, and downright silly, but it’s also consistently entertaining from beginning to end. After all, to quote a former classmate, “It’s RoboCop.”
Rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★★)
RoboCop is now playing in wide release.