Tuesday, February 11, 2014

'RoboCop' stomps into theaters

It's nothing special, but at least it avoids the junk heap.

Topical issues -- drones, the use of high-tech killing machines and the role of private enterprise in ensuring public safety -- waft through the 2014 remake of RoboCop, although they don't necessarily have much sticking power. Retooled for a new century, this remake of Paul Verhoeven's 1987 blockbuster also works in a reliable old standard: amoral corporate greed.

Not content with creating robots for heavy duty law enforcement in such dangerous places as Tehran, an evil corporation -- the unimaginatively named OmniCorp -- decides that the best route to conquering the U.S. domestic market is to put a man inside a machine.

The argument goes something like this: A human touch would help convince people that a sophisticated killing machine could experience pangs of conscience or -- in a worst case scenario -- be moved toward regret upon inflicting collateral damage.

Like the original, the screenplay contrives to make Detroit detective Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) the man in the machine. After assassins attempt to kill Murphy with a car bomb, his ragged remains are carted off to OmniCorp, where they are fitted into an imposing black suit of armor that's programmed to put him in uber-cop mode.

In one of the film's more inventive touches, we see that all that remains of Alex are his head, lungs, heart and one hand. So much for biology: The rest is metal.

Not surprisingly, Alex isn't happy to discover that he's been turned into a robot and that he henceforth will be deprived of fleshy contact with his wife (Abbie Cornish) and his young son (John Paul Ruttan).

As RoboCop, Murphy also has been deprived of the personality that he displays in the movie's early scenes, thanks in part to Kinnaman's ability to humanize cops, a skill he mastered in TV's The Killing. More about that later.

Brazilian director Jose Padilha, who created the pulsating Elite Squad movies, takes the reins, working with a screenplay that manages a bit of wit. Padilha makes amusing use of the Tin Man's refrain from The Wizard of Oz ("If I only had a heart") and of a throbbing rendition of "I Fought the Law."

But Padilha doesn't spend much time trying for tongue-in-cheek winks at the audience, aside from a recurring segment featuring Samuel L. Jackson as Pat Novak, host of a television show that pimps patriotism, OmniCorp-style.

A strong supporting cast adds some of the color that has been drained from Murphy's personality when he becomes RoboCop: Michael Keaton portrays Raymond Sellars, the villain who runs OmniCorp; Gary Oldman signs on as an OmniCorp scientist who hasn't entirely lost his moral bearings; Jackie Earle Haley has a nice turn as an OmniCorp enforcer, and Michael K. Williams appears as Murphy's human partner.

Not surprisingly, Padilha sometimes subordinates story to action, which he films in the typically chaotic style of today's movies. This means that aside from blasts and flying bullets, it's not always possible to tell what's actually happening.

If you've seen The Killing, you know that Kinnaman plays one of the more unusual cops ever to appear on TV, a hip Seattle detective with drug problems in his past. It would have been a stroke of real genius to allow Kennaman to retain a similar personality inside his black RoboCop suit.

To be fair, Kennaman does what he can to embody Robo's inner battle: Does Murphy retain enough of his humanity to counter the programming that guides his actions? Does anything of Alex Murphy remain or is he all RoboCop?

The screenplay tries build emotion by having RoboCop pine for his wife and son. Can he go from being a lethal weapon to a credible RoboDad.

RoboCop isn't as strapped for ideas as real-life Detroit is strapped for cash, but it can feel messy and noisy, which -- come to think about it -- may be just what folks are looking for with a remake that's willing to try lots of things, perhaps in hopes that some of them actually will work.

Amazingly, some do. RoboCop may lack the high-impact clobber of the original, but it manages to avoid the junk heap. I guess that's something.

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