erik lundegaard

Robocop
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Robocop (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

In the original “Robocop,” Alex Murphy (Peter Weller), a Detroit cop, dies, is reborn as a machine, and slowly becomes human again.

In this year’s reboot of “Robocop,” Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), a Detroit cop, dies, is reborn as a machine, freaks out and tries to run away, then is reprogramed to perform at high, machine-like levels so he becomes, in effect, a passenger within his own body. “Alex believes he’s in control, “Dr. Norton (Gary Oldman) says. “It’s the illusion of free will.” But when the database of all crimes committed in Detroit, including his own murder, is uploaded into his brain just before he’s trotted out to the press (smart, people), he freaks out again. So they drop his dopamine levels down to 2%, making him, in effect, so robotic he doesn’t recognize his wife and kid.

Written byJoshua Zetumer
Directed byJosé Padilha
StarringJoel Kinnaman
Gary Oldman
Michael Keaton
Abbie Cornish

After all that, he slowly, sorta, becomes human again.

So, yeah, the story arc isn’t as clean.

Internecine vs. international

It’s just not as good. Not nearly.

The original “Robocop,” directed by Paul Verhoeven and written by Edward Neumier and Michael Miner, was not only a great sci-fi/action movie; it was one of the better, more cynical movies I’ve seen about corporate malfeasance and infighting, big city bankruptcy, the marginalization of the news via entertainment, idiotic sitcoms and their catchphrases, as well as, you know, crime and the redemption of the soul. For most of the movie, Weller could only act with his mouth—everything else was covered—yet he still managed to convey so much. The movie had a lot of great lines, too, most of which I remember, some of which I still say:

  • “Dead or alive, you’re coming with me.”
  • “You a college boy?”
  • “Oooh, guns guns guns.”
  • “C’mon Sal, the Tigers are playing [raps on table] to-night. I never miss a game.”
  • “I’ll buy that for a dollar!”
  • “You give us a minute, we’ll give you the world.”

I don’t know if there are any good lines in this one. They revamp “I’ll buy that...” and “Dead or alive ... ” for the fanboys, but don’t come up with anything memorable of their own.

The news as infotainment, anchored by Leeza Gibbons, is gone now in favor of a Fox-News-like figure, Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson), of “The Novak Element,” who proselytizes for robot police officers. It’s the near future and the U.S. uses a robot army in places like “sunny Tehran,” where they police the streets scanning and terrifying the locals. This early bit isn’t bad. I particularly like how cowed the journalists are. They are essentially PR.

In the U.S., though, we have laws against robots with guns, the Dreyfuss law, since most Americans still don’t trust machines. Although one assumes they’re still mad about guns, guns, guns.

Ah, but the head of OmniCorp, Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), decides that if there’s an interim figure, a half-machine half-human figure, the public might accept him; and it might lead to the day, very quickly, when we accept robot police. At which point he’ll make a mint.

And hey, just around this time, Murphy is destroyed by a car bomb.

So while the battle between the Robocop and T-1000 programs in the original was corporate and internecine—WASPy Dick Jones (Ronny Cox) vs. scrappy Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer)—the new one is public and political. Also international. Murphy doesn’t wake up in Detroit, as in the original; he wakes up in China, where you’re allowed to test this kind of shit.

The corporate folks fit easily into niches: the glib young marketer (Jay Baruchel), the cold female general counsel (Jennifer Ehle), the sadistic head of robot testing (Jackie Earle Haley), who thinks the half-human idea is bonkers and keeps calling Murphy “Tin Man.” Give Haley credit. He’s the meatiest villain in the movie. The others barely register. Vallon (Patrick Garrow) is supposed to be the new Clarence Boddicker. Not even close. His henchmen? Nothing. Even Keaton is a blank. Throughout I kept wondering: Whither Paul McCrane? Whither Ronny Cox? Whither Kurtwood Smith?

The wife and son (Abbie Cornish and John Paul Ruttan) are more prominent here but to no exact purpose. To be honest, they’re boring. The son is most effective in flashback: Murphy seeing images of him running from the press at school. The wife is just ... you know ... the pretty wife. Loyal and pretty. But you do know your husband only has a head and some lungs left, right? Is someone going to bring this up at some point?

Meanwhile, Joel Kinnaman ... Well, bless his heart.

Robocop vs. Robocop

The one upgrade is in programming. This Robocop, like a compact NSA, can access anything and everything—phone records, surveillance videos, etc.—to immediately determine the guilt or innocence of all that he sees. That’s an interesting area to explore—and we get intimations that politicians, with their own dirty secrets, are vaguely wary of this power. But it’s just a device here. It doesn’t go anywhere. Maybe it should’ve led to Paul Novak, the other villain who registers. Of course, Sam Jackson always registers. Unless he’s Larry Fishburne.

As I sat there, bored, I kept wondering if I would’ve liked this “Robocop,” written by Joshua Zetumer and directed by indie darling José Padilha (“Elite Squad”), if I didn’t know the original. Maybe. But I do know the original. And the reboot is a massive step back. It’s not as satiric, not as gritty, not as meaningful. The original is about a man struggling to find his way back to his humanity; it’s about what’s left of us after the corporations get us. This one? It’s all over the map. I wouldn’t buy it for a dollar.

—February 14, 2014

© 2014 Erik Lundegaard

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