Thursday, February 27, 2014

To swerve and deflect: "Robocop"

I wouldn’t say I was excited for the “Robocop” remake as much as curious. As a big fan of the original – which I bought for more than a dollar – I reflexively was wary. But I also recognize today’s special effects could come in handy. Plus, I’m partial to Joel Kinnaman from his solid work on “The Killing.” Would be nice to see what he can do without following a mopey redhead around in the rain. So it was that I came to see Version 2.0 on the Presidents Day holiday, a blessed day that I had all to myself after a family vacation.
The basic story is the same, but with a few tweaks. Our hero, Alex Murphy (Kinnaman), is still a Detroit cop trying to take down a crime lord. Unfortunately, the bad guys get to him before he does to them – in this case blowing up his car and leaving him almost dead. At the same time, megacompany OmniCorp has been trying to figure out how to get its robotic soliders into U.S. police departments after successfully winning over beaucoup military work. This dynamic is laid out nicely by a conservative talk show host (Samuel L. Jackson), who believes the head of OmniCorp (Michael Keaton) can do no wrong.
To get around congressional resistance to robots, Keaton comes up with the idea to “put a man inside the machine,” using the work of their in-house scientist (Gary Oldman)  That’s where our nearly-dead hero comes in, as his wife signs him up. This comes as somewhat a surprise to Murphy, and hijinks ensure. Even when Robocop comes fully online, there’s the matter of his own attempted murder haunting him, as well as where OmniCorp wants to go from its maiden voyage into cyborgspace.
While the updated bang-bang is just fine, the biggest plus compared with the first go-around might be the attempts to give Murphy and his plight more emotional heft. Unlike the first version, Murphy knows the deal from the get-go and just needs time to figure it out and roll with it …. if he can. Sam Jackson also is fun (of course), and I liked Jackie Earle Haley as a weaselly little security guy who minds the real robots – and has no use for one with ingredient XY.
On the flipside, Keaton and Oldman don’t break new ground and really not much of a sweat in their prominent roles, and Omar from “The Wire” doesn’t get much to do as Murphy’s old partner. The movie also sorely misses the menace of Ronny Cox and the mirth of Kurtwood Smith, the main villains from the first film. (To say nothing of smarmy Miguel Ferrer.) And as much as I like Kinnaman – also not bad in the lame “The Darkest Hour” – and his effort here, the extra backstory and pathos still doesn’t hold up to the stoicism and unforgettable voice of Peter Weller, El Premier Robocop.
In the end, the new “Robocop” was entertaining enough, but Verhoeven did it better. True, he got the first crack at it more than 25 years ago, and he also had a knack of biting satire that fit this absurd premise well. I was thisclose to buying a 6000 SUX, swear to god …


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