By Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
5:05 PM PST, February 11, 2014
In the 27 years since "RoboCop" first rocked the movie world, much has happened and apparently the filmmakers behind this year's remake didn't get the memo. A straight-up old-school bot-man morph isn't quite so spectacular with "Transformers," "Terminators," "Avatar" and all-things Xbox over-populating the action landscape. (Not to mention superheroes galore.)
To put it bluntly, "RoboCop," the movie and the man, seem a little dazed and confused.
The re-imagined crime, action, sci-fi thriller isn't going for the biting satire of Paul Verhoeven's 1987 original, or its extreme violence. The sci-fi side hasn't evolved much. And the thrill? Well, most of the thrill is gone.
Which does raise the question: Why? Beyond that Hollywood dream of fabulous franchise riches, why bother?
The reboot does have some things going for it, starting with Sweden's brooding heartthrob Joel Kinnaman (best known here for his spade work in "The Killing"). His chiseled cheeks are an excellent match for Robo, a.k.a. Detroit detective Alex Murphy. You really cannot underestimate the importance of good bone structure and an icy stare in pulling off this role.
Meanwhile, Michael Keaton playing scheming business titan Raymond Sellars is deftly duplicitous. Gary Oldman is excellent as good doc/bad doc Norton, who uses Murphy as a human guinea pig. Abbie Cornish is ideal as the sexy spouse standing by her reconstituted man. And Jackie Earle Haley is a scene stealer as the insult-slinging robot handler. Of course all those zingers he aims at the hardware are really for our amusement.
Guns and explosions are blazing from the beginning, as bodies drop and dilemmas develop inside the raucous action that Brazilian director José Padilha is known for. See his 2007 "Elite Squad" for a sample of some powerful pyro. But "RoboCop's" bodies mainly drop to the ground in stylized silhouettes. There is no real sense of violence per se, though the before-and-after shots of Murphy do suggest some major pain.
Not nearly soon enough, the theater is awash in the reverb of that signature sound of heavy Robo feet pounding the pavement — wamp, wamp, wamp. Yet instead of "power" and "unstoppable," "leaden" and "slightly sluggish" come to mind.
In part, the sensation is because of the film's inner struggle — not the soul-versus-machine conundrum that faces Murphy, though that is there too. Rather it is the sound of an above-average script by Joshua Zetumer and the co-writers of the first "RoboCop," Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner, fighting to gain traction against the action. The director can't decide which to favor either.
The jabs at corporate malfeasance and the power of cable pundits are particularly sharp. The film begins with the pot-stirring political commentator Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson) using the bully pulpit of his nightly TV show to praise the power of OmniCorp's robot technology to police the rest of the world and decry Congress for keeping it off American soil.
The show cuts between Novak's stinging barbs, debating legislators and footage of a live segment with Omni's bots in action in Tehran. A suicide bombing during the telecast threatens to tank Sellars' Beltway efforts to put his robots on the streets of cities like Detroit. This drives the film's ethical, moral and scientific debate in fairly predictable ways.
By the way, the film takes place in 2028, just 14 years in the future, and for those worried about Detroit's long-term prognosis "RoboCop" comes as a relief. The city has not only emerged from bankruptcy, it is a big shiny metropolis. Conveniently, the crime problems remain.
At this point in the film, the "why bother" question has shifted to "where the heck is RoboCop?"
Patience, we're not there yet.
There's some before-business to fill out Murphy's undercover cop story and how he finds himself in need of Dr. Norton's expertise. And there are a few OmniCorp boardroom powwows that might be deadly if not for Jay Baruchel, who is very funny as the marketing whiz wielding all the focus group data.
At long last Murphy is given something of a second chance. But the rather old-fashioned mechanized life the director envisioned doesn't do much for the movie.
Robo rides a speedy, souped-up motorcycle through crowded city streets. Yawn. He's got a lot of firepower at his fingertips and a souped-up brain that displays stuff he thinks on screen. OK.
Meanwhile, Norton keeps tinkering with Murphy's dopamine, which any second-grader knows isn't fair. Stakes rise, bad guys are uncovered, Robo is resilient but probably needs therapy.
Although the movie isn't a complete disaster, it's not your father's "RoboCop" either.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of action including frenetic gun violence throughout, brief strong language, sensuality and some drug material
Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes
Playing: In general release
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