Thursday, February 13, 2014

Robocop: Just a frail tin man

Robocop (2014) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for constant and intense violence, brief profanity and some drug use

By Derrick Bang

The general rule is fundamental: A remake should surpass or, at the very least, equal its predecessor in all essential respects.

Otherwise, what’s the point?

When Alex (Joel Kinnaman, left) finally regains consciousness after the horrific attack
that left very little of his actual body, he's horrified to discover just how little remains.
Dr. Dennett (Gary Oldman) chooses his words carefully; the next few minutes will
determine how well — or badly — Alex adapts to this transformation.
Director José Padilha’s update of Robocop seems motivated more by the smell of money — Sony Pictures’ desire to revive an iconic character, in the hopes of creating a fresh franchise — than any artistic imperative. And while this film’s primary fault lies more with first-time writer Joshua Zetumer’s sloppy script than Padilha’s direction, the result is inescapable: This new Robocop doesn’t come close to matching Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 original for verve, suspense or clever political satire.

Indeed, Zetumer’s vicious, hammer-handed swipes at “heartless American imperialism” are this film’s least successful element: shrill, über-liberal bleats that keep getting in the way of what should be, at its core, a thoughtful parable on the nature of humanity. Granted, this sci-fi drama’s political subtext invites debate, but Zetumer stacks the deck laughably, most visibly in the form of Samuel L. Jackson’s Pat Novak, a foaming-at-the-mouth, right-wing TV provocateur in the mold of Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter.

Jackson’s Novak also is the first defense of a poor screenwriter: a hackneyed device who pops up every so often, to “instruct” or “remind” us poor viewers precisely how we’re supposed to react to on-screen events. Which suggests that Zetumer and Padilha don’t have much faith in their audience.

And I sure can’t figure out why they choose to conclude their film with yet another rant from Novak: a clumsy coda that makes little sense and does nothing but dilute the story’s mildly satisfying outcome.

People don’t like to be yelled at. Not in person, and certainly not at the movies.

All that aside...

The year is 2028. Uneasy military stability is maintained in Afghanistan and other terrorist-laden hot spots by the ground-level U.S. presence of EM-208 robot soldiers and larger, hyper-aggressive ED-209 sentry units. The primary goal, to avoid the loss of American lives, appears to have been achieved.

Even here, though — mere minutes into the film — Zetumer’s script introduces details that remain unresolved. Local civilians obviously resent and fear being stopped and scanned every few feet by these robotic “peacekeepers,” and several rebellious types orchestrate a very public “statement” for the courtesy of visiting TV reporters: a gesture obviously intended to inflame world opinion, but a detail that just gets dropped as events move back to the States, and specifically Detroit.

Indeed, “world opinion” simply doesn’t exist in Zetumer’s scenario. Neither does the rest of the world. (Consider the trouble we’re already in, concerning the use of “mere” drones, and ask yourself if the global body would tolerate the unrestrained deployment of American killer robots. It might have been nice if Zetumer had at least tried to work his way around that little detail.)

Anyway, back in States, OmniCorp — the global leader in robot technology — is chafing over its inability to penetrate the domestic market, because of due process and culpability concerns raised by bleeding-heart leftie Sen. Hubert Dreyfuss (Zach Grenier). OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), disgusted by the ongoing loss of such a potentially huge revenue stream, demands an innovative solution.

If Americans fear soulless robots, he reasons, then what OmniCorp needs is a suitably heroic blend of man and machine.

Elsewhere, Detroit cop Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) and his partner, Jack Lewis (Michael K. Williams), have become too aggressive in their pursuit of crime baron Antoine Vallon (Patrick Garrow). Wanting to dispose of this nuisance, Vallon orchestrates a catastrophic “accident” that leaves very little of Murphy behind.

Our hero awakens in an impressive lab supervised by Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), who — with the reluctant, desperate blessing of Alex’s wife, Clara (Abbie Cornish) — has preserved what’s left of Alex in a robotic framework.

Production designer Martin Whist’s work here is excellent, as are the contributions from Legacy Effects — who created Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man suit — and visual effects supervisor James E. Price. The “reveal,” when Alex finally sees what little remains of his actual self, is both fascinating and horrifying.

No surprise, then, that Alex nearly yields to despair. This narrative element is handled quite well, most particularly with respect to the growing relationship between Alex and Dr. Norton. The latter argues in favor of the greater good; Alex grudgingly embraces his responsibility as a test subject. The drama remains compelling as long as the plot focuses on what it means to be human, and the degree to which Alex struggles to retain his soul.

It’s an intriguing moral and philosophical clash, because although the public does embrace Alex as a sort of superhero cop, Sellars isn’t satisfied with the all-too-human hesitations that still cloud this cyborg’s response times, as compared to purely mechanical alternatives. The OmniCorp CEO therefore orders ... adjustments. And therein lies what should be the meat of the drama.

Unfortunately, Zetumer can’t even maintain his own narrative consistency. Much is made, early on, of Alex’s vulnerability to high-caliber weaponry; despite this, in the grand traditional of countless other laughably silly action flicks, our hero is blasted repeatedly by such punishing ordnance, and yet — like a Timex watch — just keeps on ticking.

This becomes particularly ridiculous twice: first during a ludicrous melee staged like a first-person-shooter video game — meaning, with absolutely no dramatic impact — and later when Alex orchestrates a we’ve-been-waiting-for-it skirmish with not one, not two, but an entire gaggle of ED-209s. At which point, we can only throw up our hands and acknowledge that Alex is immortal. Simply because the script wants it that way.

Kinnaman, a Swedish actor best known as an ongoing co-star in his country’s Johan Falk police thrillers, is the weakest actor in this film, and therefore the least interesting character: a rather fatal flaw, since he’s the hero. He shares zero chemistry with Cornish, and Padilha — perhaps wisely — doesn’t linger long on the token intimate scene intended to establish the necessary husband/wife devotion.

Keaton’s scheming, Machiavellian Sellars is far more engaging, the actor making excellent use of his Satanic eyebrows and deliciously ruthless principles. Oldman, delivering the same intelligence and compassion that he brought as Commissioner Gordon in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, immediately wins our hearts and minds as a deeply conflicted scientist who worries that ill-advised lines are being crossed.

Jackie Earle Haley is a hoot as the attitude-laden Mattox, OmniCorp’s quality-control military specialist, who dismissively regards Alex as a “tin man” unable to match the ruthless killing efficiency of “pure” robots.

Jay Baruchel is similarly droll as OmniCorp’s cold-blooded marketing toady, a bean-counter who prays solely at the altar of quarterly profits; Jennifer Ehle is frighteningly chill as OmniCorp’s heartless company lawyer. (We enthusiastically anticipate massive revenge/payback against both of these well-played villains.)

Aimee Garcia, finally, makes the most of her small role as Dr. Norton’s key tech associate.

Clearly, then, all the necessary elements seem to be in place: a strong cast (Kinnaman aside), solid technical credits and a premise that should generate plenty of narrative momentum. But Zetumer’s numbnuts script keeps sabotaging his own story’s better elements, and Padilha isn’t much of a director; Oldman, Keaton and the other actors bring their own talents to the table, and obviously aren’t helped much by the guy in charge.

I suspect, as well, that this saga is further sabotaged by Sony’s desire to release it with a so-called “family-friendly” PG-13 rating (rather laughable, given all the violence). Verhoeven’s 1987 original is a much grittier R, which feels right; by toning down the nastier details, Padilha and Zetumer have gelded the very elements that made Robocop so intriguing.

No re-booted franchise here, I hope.

No comments:

Post a Comment