published Thursday, February 13th, 2014

'RoboCop': Unnecessary remake loses wit, satire, madness of original

Joel Kinnaman, left, and Gary Oldman star in “Robocop.”
Joel Kinnaman, left, and Gary Oldman star in “Robocop.”
Columbia Pictures

‘ROBOCOP’

■ Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of action, including frenetic gun violence throughout, brief strong language, sensuality and some drug material.

■ Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes.

The first response that comes to mind with the remake of "RoboCop" is: Really, is it necessary?

The answer is, of course, "no." This is a cash-flow movie, written and designed for a post-9/11 generation that may or may not have seen the 1987 original, but probably has heard the name.

Yet for all that, while director Jose Padilha's take on the film has none of the inspired madness or dark satire of the original, it has more depth than you might expect and winds up being a serviceable film.

The plot bears only passing resemblance to the original -- cop gets torn up by violence; what's left of him is encased in a military-style robot; he must learn to deal with it -- and it has none of the hyper-violence that earned the first "RoboCop" an X rating (NC-17 today) before it was recut for release with an R. In fact, this one is virtually bloodless. And that's part of a serious flaw -- most of its action scenes are dull.

Not that you need buckets of blood to catch someone's attention, but something needed to be added to these scenes to make them rise above the ordinary. Shot in jittery, handheld camera, quick-cut style, they're chock-full of firepower but don't build any tension, tending to fly by in waves of images that never coalesce. Only one of the final scenes, involving RoboCop against a set of massive, heavily armed robots (essentially an updated version of the ED-209 robot from 1987), has any panache or power.

The original "RoboCop" was a grim satire on Reagan-era America, portraying the country as a decaying empire eaten up by consumerism and self-absorption and plagued by crime, poverty, economic collapse, evil corporations and class warfare -- so, yeah, not much different than today. But it also explored the idea of what it is to be human, even when most of you is not.

The new one delves more deeply into that humanity through the PTSD that cop Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) suffers when he realizes what he's become and what he's lost. Of course, to become a more effective killing machine, his humanity must be excised -- a rather ham-handed commentary on the dehumanizing techniques that turn military recruits into killing-machine soldiers -- before he reclaims his humanity.

But Kinnaman isn't quite up to the task. He plays robotic just fine, but when called on to show emotion, which this version deals with in greater detail than the original, he stumbles. Weepy eyes are not enough.

The plot also drops consumerism, self-absorption and poverty from the mix, replacing them with fear of terrorism, examining what we'll accept to feel safe. In this case, it's constant surveillance and an inhuman, militarized police force. To make sure we get the point, the word "drone" is used on several occasions.

The anti-terrorism angle makes the film resonate in a post-9/11 world, while the soulless corporation plays into today's post-Great Recession mindset. Michael Keaton, in one of his rare film roles these days, does a wicked job of portraying Raymond Sellars, the CEO of Omnicorp whose sheen of likability covers a core of nasty. To him, RoboCop/Murphy is simply a product to be marketed and monetized.

Also tossed in is a jab at conservative talk shows in the form of Samuel L. Jackson as ultra-hawk, America-love-it-or-leave-it TV host Pat Novak (get it? Pat Buchanan and Robert Novak?). He supports anything that kills whoever he thinks needs killing, but he's more comic relief than intelligent satire.

There are several moments that nod to the first film -- "I wouldn't buy that for a dollar" is actually said -- and RoboCop's body armor begins as an homage to the original before Keaton's character changes it for maximum marketability. But those references only make us miss the original.

The new one isn't horrid; it just isn't nearly as good.

Contact Shawn Ryan at sryan@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327.

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