Chick at the Flicks: Robocop
“The film also had that jarring weirdly bloodless-yet-still-bloody thing PG-13 action movies do to remind you that violence is violent, but not so much that you can’t take the kids.”
Joel Kinnaman, Michael Keaton
Gary Oldman, Jackie Earle Haley
and Samuel L. Jackson
PG-13 121 minutes
I’ll be honest.
I didn’t walk into RoboCop with high hopes. I walked in with lowered expectations.
The odds were not in its favor. Hollywood has been trying for years to put out a Winter blockbuster, but February is pretty much their tax write-off movie month. Marvel movie clunkers Daredevil, Ghost Rider, and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance all came out in February. A Good Day to Die Hard, the latest PG-13 installment of the originally R-rated movie series came out in February. Now Columbia/MGM are trying their luck with a remake of the 1987 classic starring fan favourite Peter Weller, but with Joel Kinnaman, a virtual unknown by my lights in the title role?
Samuel L. Jackson’s name wasn’t even enough to get my hopes up. At least, not his name alone. He’s made some picks I can’t back him up on. But I saw the names Michael Keaton, Gary Oldman and Jackie Earle Haley attached, and my eyebrow went up even if my hopes did not.
It was a pleasant surprise to say that I enjoyed this movie quite a bit more than I thought I would. They made up for the gratuitous violence by giving the movie a solid heart, and making OCP/Omnicorp even more detestable than they were in the original film. Wisely, Joshua Zetumer didn’t try to go for a shot-for-shot remake. He took the path of making it almost an alternate universe version of the story with a lot of visual callbacks to the original to appeal to the nostalgic fans who were looking to see their old hero in a new form.
The core elements remain the same: good cop Alex Murphy gets on the wrong side of the bad guys, and they do him grievous bodily harm. OCP, looking for a toehold with their war machines in the American market, convinces grieving wife Clara to let them help her husband by outfitting him with experimental cybernetic prostheses. Alex is introduced to the public, who embrace him as RoboCop. Things go well with the machine pulling most of the heavy lifting until the man claws his way back to the surface and solves his own murder. How we got from point to point has very little in common with the original, but I didn’t mind.
Joel Kinnaman has the visual callback to Peter Weller’s Alex Murphy: the big, soulful green eyes, and those lips, so prominent beneath that faceless RoboCop visor. But the similarities don’t go much beyond that. Kinnaman’s Murphy is a bit of a cowboy cop who gets in trouble and gets people hurt with his hotheadedness. He also gets way more screen time with his wife and son. We get time to see them be cute together, to see father and son bonding time, so that the punch hits that much harder when he gets hurt. We get to see that Murphy cares deeply about the things that matter to him — from his partner Lewis, to his fellow officers.
Samuel L. Jackson (Avengers) plays Pat Novak, bombastic and blustery host of a news channel type show, wherein he extols the virtues of Omnicorp drones abroad, and encourages their use on American soil. His toupee is outlandish. His suits are atrocious. But his delivery is laughably perfect. While a ludicrous crawl goes across the bottom of the screen, he rants and flails his way across a holographic set, trying to froth his in-universe audience’s emotions to a fever pitch. His infuriated rant at the end of the movie is practically comic genius, though it gives away a political slant some viewers will probably find objectionable.
Gary Oldman (The Dark Knight Rises) is Omnicorp doctor Dennett Norton — a good man put into a terrible situation. He is a cybernetic prosthetic doctor who hasn’t quite managed to bridge the distance between computerized ones and zeroes to the ineffable chemical je ne seis quois of human emotions. He starts out as the head of an incredible cybernetic rehab hospital, where it’s obvious he’s brilliant but has no grasp on the human element. His patient (Raffi Altounian)’s cybernetic hands are as dextrous as the real thing, but the interface is a bad fit. He plays astonishing classical guitar until his emotions get in the way. “You must be calm,” advises Norton. “Your emotions are interfering with the interface.” The guitarist looks at him with eyes full of betrayal and pain, replying that he needs emotion to play.
Jackie Earle Haley (Watchmen, huuurrm) plays Rick Mattox, the tech guy behind the fully automated ED-208s and ED-209s that have been deployed overseas, and who has nothing but contempt for the idea of putting a human body and mind behind the controls of one of his babies. One of the most barbed moments in the film is Murphy’s test run in the RoboCop suit vs. fully automated ED-208s. “I like music while I work,” Mattox says, turning on “If I Only Had A Heart” from The Wizard of Oz. He refers to Murphy exclusively as Tin Man from that point forward.
Last but not least, Michael Keaton plays Raymond Sellars (ha, punny name, “seller” *cough*), head of Omnicorp Detroit — the one who convinces Norton to sell out his own morals, and gets Clara Murphy to let Omnicorp “save” her husband. He puts Mattox in charge and is behind pretty much every nasty thing Omnicorp does to the Murphy family.
Murphy’s support outside of Omnicorp is little to none. The corp keeps his family at a distance and with good reason. The process that made RoboCop is imperfect and rushed. Murphy, on seeing his new form without its armor, bursts into horrified tears. I found this refreshing as I did surprising, that they actually showed the macho action hero in a vulnerable moment.
But his partner and best friend Jack Lewis (Michael K. Williams) is still on his side, and even makes a quip about his friend now being the right color once outfitted in the black RoboCop armor.
The Chief, Karen Dean (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) is the same typical Black Cop In Charge role, but with the serial numbers and most of the sharp edges filed off. She wasn’t happy with Murphy and Lewis jumping the gun to chase some dirty cops, and although she’s no happier about RoboCop Murphy being part of the force, she tries to take it in good grace until things start going wrong as we knew they would all along.
When they finally are ready to show Murphy to Detroit, the upload of the Detroit PD database causes him an emotional reaction when they get to the footage of his own murder. Norton didn’t see this coming, but we knew he wouldn’t after his intro in the rehab hospital. Tom, the oily marketing guy (Jay Baruchel) just shrugs. It’s not his problem until the numbers from the public start rolling in. Sellers doesn’t care, as long as the public doesn’t see RoboCop acting hinky. Norton has to go against his conscience to make it all work. And work it all does, at the cost of Murphy’s humanity. For a while. Until Clara reminds him he was human once, and that his family misses him. Murphy’s humanity reasserts, overriding his mechanical components.
The performances are solid. I found myself liking Murphy more than expected. I rooted for Norton from the first second I saw him on screen. Keaton played Sellers as a cold-blooded, conniving monster wearing blue-eyed charm as camouflage. Jackie Earle Haley’s Mattox had such open contempt in his performance, my jaw clenched every time he was on screen.
The special effects were about as beautiful as one could hope for with 2014’s technology; the glowing reds and blues of RoboCop’s armor and motorcycle were eye catching, and enough to make me wish this had really been a shot-for-shot remake. The cinematography relied a little too much on shaky-cam for my taste. The music leaned a little too heavily on tinkly high piano notes when it wanted to pluck the heartstrings.
The film also had that jarring weirdly bloodless-yet-still-bloody thing PG-13 action movies do to remind you that violence is violent, but not so much that you can’t take the kids. RoboCop’s arsenal included a mega-taser which could cause internal burns, and bowel and bladder disruption among other things…and your typical BFG. It was all but impossible to tell which he’d used until his HUD indicated whether his target was still alive.
Now for the bad news.
Though the movie had a diverse cast, they weren’t in the best roles. The Iranian cast were all oppressed by Omnicorp’s drones, or were terrorists seeking to protest the ‘bots in the streets. The majority of the criminals in Detroit were people of color.
Although Murphy’s family was more prominently featured in this remake, Abbie Cornish had little else to do on screen besides look blandly supportive, get her shirt taken off, and then spent the majority of her remaining screen time shaking, crying, or in whispery impotent rage. But hey, despite the movie’s PG-13 rating, her bra remained on, so that’s something.
They kept Lewis as Murphy’s partner. Plus. Lewis is still a good cop. Plus. Lewis’ name is now Jack instead of Anne. Minus. Murphy’s tiny-but-badass partner was something I’d been really hoping to see them recreate in this reimagining, but they cast a man in the role, erasing the woman.
Oh, wait, they made the chief female, didn’t they? But she’s not all she is cracked up to be either.
Still, those considerations aren’t enough to completely ruin the movie for me. I like a movie with a heart, and RoboCop delivered that. Oldman owned it with the struggle over his conscience and trying to do as right as he could by Murphy. Kinnaman did a good job with his part, emoting with those lips and those eyes where he could under that visor. Even if that does sum the movie up to “dueling man pain”.
I like a movie with an uplifting message, and RoboCop delivered that too. When all was said and done, Murphy’s wife fought for him as much as the script allowed her to. Lewis backed Murphy up as much as the script permitted him to. The message, contrary to Pat Novak’s ending rant, is that no machine can ever truly replace the inexplicable strength of the human spirit. Love and friendship gave Murphy the strength to overcome his RoboCop programming and defeat the obstacles before him. It may be a little sappy for an action movie, but it works for me.
3.5 out of 5.
You can add that half a star back if the Lewis and Chief casting tweaks didn’t bother you as much as they did me.
You can subtract a whole star if you walked in expecting a shot-for-shot remake. Sorry