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'Robocop' reboot an entertaining downgrade

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'Robocop' 2014 remake

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As Baby’s father said to Johnny near the finale of “Dirty Dancing”—“When I’m wrong, I say I’m wrong.”

The “Robocop” remake is not the soulless disaster I feared it could have been. The filmmakers tried. They really did, and in the process have created an entertaining superhero movie along the lines of what Marvel is doing these days. But still, there was an opening to make something better here—something that flirted with the greatness of the 1987 masterpiece it seeks to emulate. This is a good movie that could have been so much better.

A little bit of film history; the original 1987 “Robocop” is an irreverent, savage satire of the culture of corporate imperialism, raging greed, and privatization run amuck that was in vogue at the time(and is now the norm). It was also a clever critique of American machismo. But the brilliance of the original “Robocop” was that it did it all effortlessly while at the same time delivering an absolute riveting, knockout, adrenaline-fueled, testosterone stoked, kick-ass, imaginative science fiction action flick full of rousing sequences that have become imbedded into the fabric of pop culture.

Now to expect the new “Robocop” to do all of the above is unrealistic. Genre films today are saddled with PG-13 ratings. You could not make the original “Robocop”, “Total Recall”, or even “Terminator” today. Movies today have lots of violence but it is sanitized, which is worse, because it shows no consequences. Blockbusters do not make social and political commentary today, and when they do (as in the case of “The Dark Knight” or “Elysium”) there is outrage. But the shortcoming of this new version is not the lack of scathing satire or gore, it is in the narrative and in the execution of the action.

Director José Padilha abides by the tiresome shoot all action sequences up close with shaky cam and then over edit school of directing. When the camera isn’t shaking the action reverts to a dull video game sensibility. Compare this to the brilliant visual style used by Neill Blomkamp in “Elysium” and you will see (and feel) the difference. That being said, there are two or three moments in the movie that were begging for Padilha to put Robocop into action and pump up the classic Basil Poledouris theme music—and the scene just stopped. One of the missing ingredients of this movie is music. If there was a score, I sure never heard it and the film needed a great one to make it all work.

Now on to the good and there is a lot of good in this movie too starting with the performances.

Gary Oldman is fantastic. This is, in many ways, his movie. The veteran actor and consummate pro has once again delivered a big time performance and elevates the movie to a whole new level. His character feels real and the emotional arc is believable and resonates. Michael Keaton may not be as overtly sinister as heavy Ronny Cox but he puts a nice contemporary twist on the villain, giving the character a Steve Jobs gone to the dark side vibe. Jack Earle Haley oozes evil as his henchman enforcer and provides the reboot’s answer to Curtwood Smith.

One bit of wicked satire this remake does have is in the form of a Glenn Beck/Bill O’Reilly type TV talk show host played with hilarious verve by the great Samuel L. Jackson. Truly wonderful stuff!

He may not have Peter Weller’s unique persona and distinct charisma, but Joel Kinnaman is terrific as the title character. And one area where the movie does improve on the original is with the family story. Murphy’s wife is given a much needed expanded role here and Abbie Cornish makes the most of it. The movie comes to life every time she is on the screen and next to Oldman, she has the best performance in the film.

Bottom line: Although it lacks the bite of the original and could have used more action, the new ‘Robocop” is an entertaining superhero film featuring a great performance by Gary Oldman.

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