Robocop (2014)

Let’s get one thing off the table here: Whatever I think of this movie I’m reviewing, there’s one completely objective issue I’m going to run into: It has the exact same title as the popular 1987 movie of which it is a remake. This makes discussion hard. So henceforth, I will call the original “RoboCop” – since, after all, it was made in the faraway mists of time when you were allowed to use CamelCase without leading your Wikipedia entry to ruin and misfortune. Conversely, the remake we’re talking about here will be “Robocop”. I’m sure that won’t create any problems.

A year later, there’s not a whole lot of love or hate for Robocop, passable little SF and action-tinged social commentary that it is. The consensus seems to be that remaking RoboCop was a bad idea in the first place since it was so good, but I think that’s not looking far enough into why that is.

RoboCop was, in my view, lightning in a bottle – something you couldn’t replicate without every ingredient in its formula being exactly right. Director Paul Verhoeven (pronounced in his native Dutch as in “What are those horseshoes for?” “‘Fer hoofin’.”, by the way) gets most of the credit for elevating the grungy action movie story to the bitter anti-consumer-culture polemic that it eventually became, but I don’t think he deserves all of it. All he did was to add his signature highbrow exploitation flick aesthetic that went on to only bring him mixed success – remember, outside of this movie, the two most famous moments of his work are a woman with more sex organs than usual, and a woman with a more visible sex organ than usual.

And maybe Nazi Patrick Harris, if you like that sort of thing.

RoboCop was made by two first-time screenwriters who had more than thirty years of Hollywood experience between them – no, not those two guys with more than thirty years of Hollywood experience between them – so their style was unrefined yet intelligent, which worked well with that directorial style and led to just the right mix of satirical over-the-top bloodbaths and serious 80’s style shootouts, standoffs and car chases to capture the hearts and minds of the audience.

In this age, when every action movie is pigeonholed into being either The Dark Knight or The Big Hero 6 with next to no middle ground, it would be hard to replicate this mix of the dead serious and the drop-dead hilarious. It was probably inevitable that the remake would take the former route, but while the latter makes for more enticing ads, the latter didn’t work with their attempts to iterate on the feel of the original. And they did try, don’t get me wrong – this was made by smart people, who loved the original and wanted to do it justice. But in doing so they sacrificed the movie as its own work of art, on its own terms, so it doesn’t really stand up as entertaining. These are movies, and they’re supposed to be about entertainment. People should remember that.

Unfortunately, it looks like at least two of the people who don’t are the director and screenwriter of Robocop, since the movie starts on ten solid minutes of stuff we’re not supposed to enjoy. I’m not even joking about this. It’s essentially an episode of The Colbert Report with no comedy, with Samyalel (Really? You got Samyalel for this role? It didn’t work when he was Mace Windu, it won’t work here!) doing a Glenn Beck/Bill O’Reilly caricature that is honestly much too understated to be funny. Man. what is it with stuff being too subtle and smart lately?

Y’see, the essence of satire, even more Horatian satire to contrast the Juvenalian original (yeah, just dropping those names like it ain’t no thing), is exaggeration. But if they exaggerated too much they couldn’t wrong-foot the viewer by casting Samyalel or keep the serious tone in place. It feels like cutting off your nose to spite your face, or maybe cutting it off so your face looks less like your father’s face because he’s famous and you want to be set apart from him. That’s right, Robocop is the Michael Jackson of movies.

You’re right, Samyalel. That analogy did get away from me!

Why am I spending so much time on this? Two reasons. One, because the movie does. In total there’s something like 20 to 25 minutes of Samyalel’s bad hairpiece and boring talk-show affect, its only role in the plot of the film being to serve as a meter for the public’s feeling for the events of the plot and to give someone an opportunity to say “Robocop” without having Robocop be named Robocop in a movie called Robocop.

The other reason is that there’s really not much I can say in terms of plot analysis or recap for the first half-hour or so. You’ve got the young idealistic cop Alex Murphy in dystopic future Detroit, fighting crime with his more seasoned and cynical partner against a backdrop of underhanded and amoral corporate control until he’s critically injured in an accident. The main difference is that this is toothless compared to the original – I call the future Detroit “dystopic” because Samyalel says so, rather than any objective evidence. The streets are clean, the sun is shining, Murphy’s lower-middle-class family (including the sadly underused Abbie Cornish – say, why not make her become Robocop if we really want to mix things up?) is happy and well off. The only bad thing going on is mob activity and police corruption, which is hardly the worst thing you can have in big cities – especially a big city like Detroit, which isn’t doing so great if you’ve checked the news in the past…decade. Ahem.

Now, this part isn’t awful, since the point of this is a greater character focus – not just fleshing out Alex Murphy and his associates more, but also giving more depth to the soulless businessmen who create Robocop as, essentially, a mascot for their line of military and law-enforcement predator drone technology all around the world.

[Honestly, what was anyone else thinking of?

I don’t hate the portrayal of the executives, I’m just sad, like I am with most of the movie. They had such amazing potential (they’re played by Michael Keaton and Gary Oldman, aka “Ooooh, right, we’d forgotten he’s a world-class movie star” and “I can play Ronan The freakin’ Accuser and make him compelling” respectively) they had some clever ideas for how to do it , and their scenes have a sense of commitment to the original RoboCop. But the completely muddled execution just throws that all away, making it fail not with a bang but a whimper.

Take the executives, who have several nudge-wink lines toward the idea of having to turn a thinking, feeling human being into just another product they can sell, but still having to pretend he has hopes and dreams of his own – geddit, folks? That’s nice, and in another context it could have worked really well. But you can’t just write witty, self-referential dialogue without giving it context – these are the bad guys of the movie, and so the climate of their performances make it hard to have the jokes come through so it just sounds weird.

This shows what could have been a great way to update the spirit rather than the letter of RoboCop; have it be a story on the order of The Lego Movie (By the way, I’m not doing a review of The Lego Movie, because it’s hard to make jokes about a movie that feels like it was made specifically for you).

Emmet Brickowsky is my spirit animal.

Have Robocop take place in continuity with RoboCop, which will make your advertisers happy since you get to con people into thinking this is a Marvel movie. Have the movie take place in Delta City, the EPCOT-esque privatized city that the bad guys were planning in the original – it wouldn’t be too difficult to make stuff look like THX 1138 meets Mirror’s Edge. In this environment, have crime still be rampant, since the people wouldn’t happy with the draconian laws of the corporate empire, and things would go all Brazil, with illegal activities needed just to make things convenient for the people.

To treat both the symptom and cause of this crime and unrest, the corporation would try reviving the original RoboCop project, since all the sequels…er, later models were so disastrous. Have a police officer named Colin Murphy or something get critically injured by bad guys shortly after this, which would make the corporation even more eager to turn him into RoboCop because of the name connection.

He does so, grateful to the corporation for saving his life until he starts to discover a vast conspiratorial web in Delta City’s underworld, leading to the revelation that all of Delta City’s illegal operations are still controlled by the company, and the criminals injured Colin Murphy on purpose because he was the perfect person to be RoboCop. He reveals this to the public, which spurs open revolt and lets him reunite with his family. Roll credits.

But, alas, we just get Batman and Sirius Black saying “The public’s not gonna like this; he’s too old school.” Between these two, Samyalel, and Tropic Thunder’s Jay Baruchel as ‘hipster who gives exposition’, the preponderance of big name actors in minor roles made it start to feel like the worst parts of The Grand Budapest Hotel, when there are so many award winning actors with so little to do they start literally coming out of the woodwork.

Like, seriously; coming into the scene from behind woodwork. Edward Norton, ladies and gentlemen!

You know something I can get riled up about, though? The casting of Alex Murphy. Peter Weller has a lot of things – a great voice, a full-bore intense stare, a doctorate in Art History (no, really, look it up!) – but most important is panache. That no-nonsense demeanor, that fluid delivery, all give him way more charm than you might think. And nothing proves that better than Manfrom A. Copshow, the actor who they’ve hired to play Murphy here. I can’t even tell if Manfrom’s eponymous role is the troubled hero, the morally grey sidekick, the psychotic recurring villain or whatever – he just looks intense and stubble-y, like just about everyone on premium cable these days.

I was sorta joking about Abbie Cornish, but literally anyone else in the movie  – maybe not the boring crime boss who’s supposed to have Kurtwood Smith’s part from the original, but almost anyone else – would have been a better choice for Robocop.

But let’s pick up with the story once Murphy is turned into Robocop. Now, if you’re changing the story to be more character-focused, you’ll run into the problem of what to do about adapting the famous first-person sequence from the original, since it was such a masterstroke of wordless (and indeed, actionless) character development. There’s a spark of creativity in their own spin on it – we see Murphy with all his robot parts taken away, leaving him a limbless torso with a terrified head as Gary Oldman talks him through his new life of essential indentured servitude to the evil corporation. Manfrom acquits himself pretty well as Murphy is shell-shocked by the horror of what he’s become, especially considering he’s just a head on some (excellent, by the way) CGI environments.

Something really distracting and annoying about this is that in every dialogue scene, the camera is always handheld and shaky, as if trying to keep you interested by giving you motion sickness. The cinematography is just awful.

Anyway, Murphy comes to terms with his situation offscreen, and gets assigned to rehab and combat training with Jackie Earle Haley – probably the best choice to play Robocop out of anyone in the movie. He’s got the build, he’s got charm, and he’s best known for playing a character with no face, so it would work out great.

He puts Robocop through his paces, being mistrustful of the whole idea of cyborgs as replacements for robots – humans are irrational and emotional, making fighting longer, bloodier and more unpredictable. Gary Oldman agrees, and just sucks out his feelings from a tube.

No, I’m serious, that’s what happens. It’s a little clear tube that they suck his emotions through. I guess emotions are…brown? Eew.

Thanks to this, Murphy becomes a pure tool who does nothing but catch bad guys with perfect precision thanks to the network of surveillance cameras and NSA phone data that his computer mind gives him. He becomes a folk hero to the people of Detroit as he single-handedly cleans up the streets, but he becomes completely emotionless with him wife and infant son.

Aw man, a father who’s emotionally distant from his son because of his work just reminded me of how transcendent The Lego Movie was, and now I’m sad, because what else can measure up to that?

Definitely not Robocop. Again, this is even more toothless than The Lego Movie in both social commentary and violence – Robocop dispatches his enemies with stun guns and threats, and the ensuing Samyalel appearance is basically nothing but an excuse to have him attempt the Stephen Colbert eyebrow raise-thing.

[I…actually, that’s pretty good. Let’s see you do a ‘Formidable Opponent’ routine, then we’ll talk.

The next part is the ill-conceived nadir of the story: You see, even though he’s been programmed to be a ruthless, emotionless killer and they sucked out all his emotion, he manages to find a little bottle of emotion at the back of a cupboard in his old house and drinks it up.

OK, that time, it was actually a joke. But he does start remembering his old life and family, from walking through his old house (although it loses most of the impact it had in RoboCop because we already know his wife and son well enough) and soon he’s hunting down the boring mob boss who almost killed him – rediscovering the base emotions of revenge.

Unfortunately for him, since Murphy is now so famous, the boring mob boss has been expecting him to do this for months, and essentially puts his entire criminal organization on lockdown duty. Since we saw Robocop dispatching about 50 guys with ease back when he was being trained by his Sensei Jackie Earle Haley, you’d expect this fight to be pretty effortless on his part…and you’d be exactly right, since he cuts through them like butter.

People say that action needs to have stakes, and that the heroes should at least feel like they’re in danger and vulnerable. Most of these people also enjoyed the last act of The Avengers, though, so that’s out the window. But if you don’t have stakes, then the action should take a backseat – either to character interaction like it did in the above example, or to a comic sequence, or setting up an important plot point, or maybe even to have a spectacular artistic device for us to notice instead.

Artistic? Looks more like your FRAPS had some recording issues.

And the action here largely relies on the last two of these alternatives. The time he takes out 50 dudes I mentioned earlier is interspersed with Gary Oldman, talking about how good of a killing machine Murphy is with no emotions left, as he drinks those emotions he sucked out of Murphy through a crazy straw. Or how each big fight is set to a dissonant classic pop song, which doesn’t really do much except cost Paramount a pretty penny in licensing rights.

So here, we pull out all the stops: The battle is lit entirely by muzzle fire, but we occasionally see a night vision camera, in red and white varieties like this is a Bible movie (see above). It doesn’t blow me away, to say the least, and it’s not even all that important to the story – when he comes back to the police station from catching the boring mob boss he’s captured by the company and put back into Gary Oldman’s lab.

When he comes to, he immediately breaks out, with Oldman’s help, since he now realizes he was wrong – he regrets every single drop of that emotion smoothie! Unfortunately, Michael Keaton feels differently. Getting wind of Oldman’s change of heart, he realizes that free will turns Robocop into a liability for the company and calls up Jackie Earle Haley to take him down.

Remember all that business about alternatives to interesting action I just talked about? For this final battle through the streets of Detroit, that all goes out the window, and the film drops all pretense of being a Dark Knight imitation. The Dark Knight was a cool action movie, and this is a very good imitation, but when I go to see Robocop I don’t want to see Batman – if I wanted that I’d go watch that cute little Batman cartoon from a few years ago.

You know, this one, with the robot Lincoln fight.

But I suppose it is a good way to cap off the movie. Pretty nice, maybe even decently entertaining on its own terms, but not what we came here to see. There’s a dumb ending meant to leave the door open for a sequel, but the only thing of value I got from it is more of The Visible Alex Murphy. I can’t think of a better note to end on.

TWO THUMBS UP

THUMBS UP: The creative bits, The “near future” aesthetic – more than just ‘smaller phones and nothing else’, but still largely similar.

THUMBS DOWN: The idea to do a remake of RoboCop without any of the stuff people liked about RoboCop.

TWO THUMBS DOWN: Manfrom A. Copshow as Robocop

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3 Comments

  1. Although it’s not a patch on the 1987 original, I thought RoboCop was OK and I’d definitely check out a sequel. Great review, very original!

    Reply

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