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Robocop (2014)

Get with the Program

Here are the conditions under which I saw José Padilha's Robocop: after a mentally taxing day at the office, I popped a Five-hour Energy shot in order to survive the 7:30pm screening of a two-hour remake I'd had zero desire to see. And because theatre chains have collectively agreed that everyone wants to see everything in IMAX,1 I paid $15.25 for a larger and louder version of a two-hour remake I'd had zero desire to see.

Oh, I'd also watched the new 4k blu-ray edition2 of Paul Verhoeven's original film a couple days before--meaning my nostalgia goggles had been securely put away by the time I sat down with "Rebootcop".

Having seen the film, I predict a hefty level of critical and financial failure on the horizon. Not because Robocop 2014 is bad, but because, frankly, lots of people suck. Padilha was in a no-win situation from the get-go: fans of Verhoeven's movie will avoid this like the plague, due to "the suits" having turned yet another sacred cow into a Big Mac. Those that sneak in, torrent--or, God forbid, pay--will likely be unable to hear or see anything past their own bullshit emotional baggage ("Why does it have to be PG-13?" "Where's Clarence Boddicker?", "Why does Robocop still have a human hand?" "This is stupid." "The 80s were so much better."). I can easily see Millennials being bored out of their skulls: the kinetic video game-style shoot-'em-ups they were promised in the trailer take a back seat to character development (and, no, kids, that's not the process of constructing an on-line avatar).

I suppose there'll be a few folks like me: skeptics who leave the theatre with warm fuzziess for Verhoeven's work, but who also believe, incredibly, that the remake is a better film all around. The 1987 movie was an in-your-face parody of corporate excess, vapid media, and a society that craved violence as much as it claimed to abhor it. The story is, frankly, an afterthought, and the reason to watch Robocop has always been the blood-squibs and bad-ass performances. In fairness, I shouldn't refer to Padilha's film as a remake: it's a unique beast that shares elements from a story we all know and love. For you DC Comics fans out there, think of the new movie as an "Elseworlds" tale: it cribs from the canon but doesn't detract from it by virtue of existing (non-DC Comics fans can Google it).3

In Robocop 2014, Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is a beat cop working the corrupt streets of Detroit. When he and his partner, Jack Lewis (Michael K. Williams), are targeted by crime boss Antoine Vallon (Patrick Garrow) and his informants within the department, things get messy. Alex is nearly killed, and his wife, Clara (Abbie Cornish), signs over what's left of his body to Omnicorp, a monolithic technology firm that specializes in robotics and advanced weaponry. Its Steve Jobs-like president, Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) wants to use Murphy as a prototype for a new brand of law-enforcement drone--one whose human face and heroic story will soften a skeptical American public to the idea of weapons-on-legs patrolling their streets.

Unlike Verhoeven's film, which was fueled by satire, Padilha and screenwriter Joshua Zetumer ground their Robocop in reality, and use the new film to present the audience with a series of delicious "If/then" scenarios. This analogy will probably rub some people the wrong way, but the filmmakers' vision is much more in line with Ang Lee's Hulk than, say, the empty, effects-heavy smash-up that followed. We got roughly five minutes with Peter Weller's Murphy in 1987 before he was blown to smithereens. Kinnaman is the hero of this new version, and not the suit (nor the cadre of cackling villains, who are justifiably absent from this decidedly non-cartoonish take on the premise).

About Kinnaman: talk about stacked odds. Weller's was such an iconic, career-defining role that anyone stepping into those big metal boots was bound to be ripe for unfair scrutiny. I'm happy to say he does very well here, even great at times. Because his Murphy is a man through and through,4 we get to experience his full range of emotions: fear, confusion, anger, love. Instead of wishing Murphy's family away into a convenient cornfield, the filmmakers force us to reckon with Clara and their son, David (John Paul Ruttan). It's weird to say I was fighting back tears during the Robocop remake, but the look of hesitation on the boy's face during his father's homecoming was heartbreaking--and Kinnaman played the nuances of a crushed spirit grasping at resolve beautifully.

Robocop 2014's driving spirit is the filmmakers' understanding of how America's social and political climate has changed since 1987. There's no need to go the overt satire route, because much of what the original film predicted has come true in some fashion or another. Samuel L. Jackson bookends the film as right-wing talks show host Pat Novak, and he succeeds in mimicking Bill O'Reilly by playing it straight: he's a man of awful conviction, who has a massive, captive audience and the ear of key officials from the corporate-backed government at his disposal (only once, towards the end, does he slip into "Sam Jackson-ness"). Padilha and Zetumer create the exact kind of frightening propaganda one might actually see while channel surfing (only with much cooler interactive graphics).

This devotion to reality-based science fiction also informs how they draw their villain. Yes, there's a climactic showdown on a helipad, with guns drawn and family members' lives at stake. But for the most part, the nefariousness of the Sellars' true nefariousness lies in his manipulation of the law and the people who consume his products. He's an ideas man, and a slave to market forces: as much as he'd love to put cyborgs and walking tanks in every neighborhood (just as he's done on every other continent, creating ostensible world peace), he understands the power of the consumer--which is ultimately the power of perception. He works in secret to manipulate that perception and turn the tide his way (instead of, say, hiring mercenaries to knee-cap and assassinate rival executives).

The relationships within Omnicorp are complex. Robocop's chief technician is kindly Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), who is recruited from the company's rehabilitation-tech division to spearhead this new weapons effort. His initial reluctance is weakened by Sellars' charm and assurances--so much so that the men eventually switch roles, momentarily, as the film's most frightening character. Even scarier is Sellars' role in Omnicorp, which, as we discover late in the game, may not be as significant as we've been led to believe (OCP, anyone?).

Okay, great, the new Robocop is a movie about ideas. So was The Phantom Menace (allegedly). How's the entertainment value for average Joes who just want to see people get blowed up real good? I can't speak to that, but I will say that, to me, the action scenes were surprisingly effective. I was a PG-13 naysayer all the way up until the house lights went down, but Padilha achieves such violence through movement and editing that I didn't miss the original's outrageous gore for a second. Even the so-called "video-game action" that I'd yawned at in trailers and on-line teases didn't bother me. In the context of the story, the CGI is top-notch, and doesn't suffer from the unreality we've seen in, say, the Amazing Spider-Man 2 footage (like the 1987 version, sound design also plays a major role in our perception of these giant metal forces beating the shit out of one another).

Best of all, this film's violence feels like it was designed for a broad audience. There weren't any awkward cut-aways to suggest a forthcoming, gimmicky "Unrated and Unstoppable!" blu-ray cut. Because this movie is aimed at adults as well as teenagers (as opposed to adults who think like teenagers), Padilha knows that if he just ropes in moviegoers with a great premise and strong performances, they'll be sufficiently thrilled with his well-paced and well-placed bursts of action. No need for exploding limbs as shiny objects here.

I've gone on too long already, but there's so much more to love and discuss about the new Robocop. If, like me, your snark alarm kicked into high gear the moment MGM announced a remake, I beg you to lay your cynicism aside and at least give Padilha and company a chance to work their magic on you. This film is in serious danger of becoming Dredd, with hoards of fanboys screaming in regret several months from now that they didn't support what turned out to be the kind of stylized, intelligent, and downright awesome mainstream entertainment they've claimed to want for years. Personally, I think this movie is superior to Verhoeven's version; while the ten-year-old boy in me will always appreciate its cutting-edge gore, quotability, and Weller's undeniable badassery, my adult self is finally happy to see this premise explored in a way that excites the brain, the heart, and the pulse.

"Our regular showtimes are 9am and 9:45pm, but you can enjoy Robocop the way it was meant to be experienced at 11:30am, 1:30pm, 3:30pm, 5:30pm, 7:30pm..."

2 If you have a blu-ray player and don't own this thing (currently a steal at $7.99), do yourself a favor and pick it up from Best Buy or Target on the way home from the theatre. The picture and audio are superb (ED-209 no longer comes across as a wonky blue-screen puppet; Dick Jones still looks dumb, though, falling out that window with his seven foot arms flailing like clay snakes). This unrated disc has plenty of extras, too, making the previous blu-ray edition utterly disposable.

3 Back to the no-win situation: I've heard people suggest that if the filmmakers had wanted to make something other than a straight-up reboot, they shouldn't have called their movie Robocop. This is ridiculous, as the collective circular reasoning would have led to outcries of, "They've just ripped off Robocop! Hey, remember how great Robocop was? Hollywood is out of ideas..."

4 Padilha and Zetumer reference the ensuing decades' war horrors to give us a psychologically battered, wounded-vet hero, rather than a computer-program-with-a-soul who communicates through stilted human speech.

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