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Movie review: 'Robocop' reprograms a modern classic but this one lacks directive



The first question is always "why?" when it comes to re-making films of the recent past. You may not remember it as being such, but the original 1987 Robocop film, directed by Paul Verhoeven, is now considered a modern classic: A dark satire of American society that - believe it or not - is now taught in colleges as an essential part of film study. And while the new Robocop (opening today) is not nearly as big of a disaster as the 2012 remake of another 80s sci-fi classic, Total Recall, this re-boot is merely an empty, metal shell of its previous self.

Scenes from "Robocop."
Scenes from "Robocop."
2014 Columbia Pictures
2014 Columbia Pictures

As with Total Recall and many other failed re-makes, the filmmakers seemed to have crafted a likeness of the original, missing the real substance that made the original what it was. This new film still takes place in the near future - in "New Detroit" - and features a cop, Alex Murphy, who is critically injured and who is transformed by the powerful corporation, OmniCorp, into a robotic, crime-fighter named Robocop. It borrows a few lines, some plot points and some characters, but this new version has been boiled down into a shaky, action shoot-em-up instead of a thriller with a brutal but poignant edge.

Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is an undercover Detroit Police officer in the near future who is retaliated against by some local thug. At his home, Murphy survives a horrific blast, but his mangled status makes him the perfect candidate for an experimental new program being ran by OmniCorp and its President Sellars (Michael Keaton). Sellars is looking to profit on a new kind of police officer: Robots and cyborg units that have proved successful in preventing crime overseas. But there is opposition to robot police in the States (aren't we the last to adopt everything these days?). The public insists that the human element must exist in order to make them feel safe. And thus, the idea of Robocop is born: A human engineered with robotic limbs and parts, who is billed as the next generation of public safety.

A new character, the scientist Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) is the man with the know-how to create such a thing. Channeling Star Trek, if Norton says that technology exists than it does, physics be damned. Dr. Norton features prominently in this new film and provides us with the moral dilemmas the script decides to touch on from time to time.

The film is framed in a sort of "O'Reilly Factor," with Samuel Jackson playing host of a program called "The Novak Effect." Much like today's TV pundits, he provides a mostly one-sided argument for America's needs in regards to robo-police. His scenes are perhaps the film's most compelling, but his character never really interacts with the main storyline.

With the set-up from Sam Jackson, this new Robocop had promise. But once we are introduced to Murphy, there is no satire or intellectual stimulation to be found. Because the original had managed to have fun while also saying something, I guess my expectations were a bit too high. And hey, don't tell me not to consider the original: If a film wants to re-make a film that has already been done, it opens itself up to such critical comparisons.

Of itself, it's just an OK action movie that follows a predictable arc. The acting ranges from decent (Oldman) to awful (Abbie Cornish as Murphy's unconvincing wife) and the camera shakes just enough to cover up some editing inconsistencies and to make sure things still seem edgy even when they're not. The original carried an R-rating and therefore was a much darker and nasty version, while this film's PG-13 seems like a corporate-built machination itself.

Robocop is no longer a human necessity needed to reverse the downward trending urban condition, but a mean-lean fighting machine meant to bolster the corporate bottom-line and to create enough on-screen dazzle as to entertain the masses. His battles in this film more closely resemble Tony Stark's Iron Man, and doesn't carry with it the weight of the original.

Robocop has the look and skeletal structure of something familiar, but it has become the story of one man instead of the sprawling social commentary that accompanied the first film. The new Robocop isn't horrible, but it was originally built to mean much more.

Genre: Action, Crime, Sci-Fi

Run Time: 1 hour, 58 minutes, Rated PG-13

Starring: Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Abbie Cornish, Jackie Earle Haley, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael K. Williams, Jennifer Ehle, Jay Baruchel

Written by Joshua Zetumer

Directed by Jose Padilha (Elite Squad, Elite Squad: The Enemy Within)

Opens locally on Wednesday, Feb 12, 2014 (check for show times).

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How to read Tom Santilli's "Star Ratings:"

  • 5 Stars: Exceptional, must-see movie
  • 4 Stars: Very good movie, not without flaws
  • 3 Stars: The movie was just OK, leaves a lot to be desired
  • 2 Stars: Pretty bad, a let-down, disappointing, but with some redeeming qualities
  • 1 Star: Awful, sloppy, a total waste of time
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