By R. David
Viewed February 12, 2014
On my list of 1980s action movies that Hollywood needs to keep their greedy little remake-happy hands straight the fuck off, “Die Hard”, “Lethal Weapon” and “RoboCop” are at the very top. All three films are simply too iconic and, frankly, perfect just the way they are to justify any sort of “upgrade”. Moreover, they all hold up incredibly well even 25 years later. If you take things like fashion and hairstyle out of the mix (and even to that degree, these films hardly scream 1980s – They aren’t “Pretty in Pink” or some shit – no one is dressed like Michael Jackson or Madonna – we all still generally wear the same clothes as John McClane or Riggs and Murtaugh), there is nothing in the acting, writing, directing and overall filmmaking in any of these classics that dates them beyond the most superficial of surface level distractions (“Ha, ha! Look at the size of that cell phone.” “LOL! That limo has a VCR!”). These films don’t make any commentary on the fads, music or general pop culture of the era. They are just lean, mean – and as it turns out – timeless classics of action cinema.
The difference between “RoboCop” and the other two aforementioned titles is that much of “RoboCop’s” action and appeal hinges on its futuristic setting and special effects setpieces. And if there has been one legitimate improvement in filmmaking over the last 25 years, it has been in the SFX arena. We can argue all day long about the charms of old school technology (and I will in a minute) or the fact that action movies today are too reliant on CGI, to the point of overkill and that little things like storytelling, logic and character development are being treated as an afterthought as long as there is enough eye-popping spectacle on the screen (*flips “Transformers” the bird). Still, the fact remains that they can indeed do some amazing – and amazingly convincing – things with SFX in movie these days (cough, cough “Gravity” cough).
So it makes some sense, I suppose, to theorize that a movie as great as “RoboCop” could only be that much cooler with a bigger budget and today’s awesome arsenal of CGI. Of course, ten seconds after someone floats that theory, they should immediately laugh out loud at the prospect of messing with a film of such sheer perfection simply to update effects that, frankly, were a major part of the very reason the original is so memorable and beloved 25 years later.
For example, when one thinks “RoboCop”, who doesn’t immediately recall the ED-209 with its hulking frame, blazing guns and delicious stop-motion animation? The 209 is not as memorable and entertaining as it is because it looks cheap or dated (though young punks brought up on a steady diet of “Avatar”-like SFX might beg to differ), but rather because it is a surreal and unique character. ED-209 feels organic, original and very much like an actual character in the film. It even has personality (that awkward footing issue!). The animation may lack the technical sheen of newfangled CGI, but that only matters if you see the ED-209 as an effect, rather than something organic.
As for the other action FX in “RoboCop” – as in “Lethal Weapon”, “Die Hard”, and a good number of other ‘80s action flicks – they are actually preferable to the needlessly homogenized action we get in this day and age of CGI everything. Back when they used stuntmen, real cars and actual locations. CG blood? Hell no! Squibs. And tons of ‘em. Extra bloody, please. Everyone remembers that scene where that one bad guy gets drenched in toxic waste, then gets hit by a car and explodes into a human stew. They didn’t have CGI for that, and it wouldn’t have looked any more perfect if they did.
It is probably a moot point however because, sadly, they probably wouldn’t do anything like that today. Sure there are still plenty of movies being made for gore-hounds, and a few directors still revel in their ability to come up with some inspired splattery action; but by and large big-budget, major-studio films that are designed to become franchise crowd-pleasers avoid these sort of outrageously violent gags. In fact, most of these remakes of formerly hard-R action classics are bloodless PG-13 knock-offs of their inspirations (like last year’s “Total Recall” remake, for instance).
Which finally brings us to this “RoboCop” 2.0. It is rated PG-13, because of course it is. And there is a ton of CGI. Everything looks really polished, but none of it has any impact. There is nothing surprising or moving about it. Nothing that anyone will walk out of the theater feeling they have experienced for the first time or seen in a new, enlightening way. Nothing that will make audiences ooh and ah or shout out in glee. It just sits there, looking pretty and professional, indistinguishable from dozens of other films just like it. There is nothing particularly wrong with it or terribly bad about it. It is hardly the laughable disaster or insult to the original it could have been. The performances are fine, but nothing special. The plot is serviceable. There is some admirable attempt at social and political commentary. A few entertaining set pieces. “Robocop” 2014 is a perfectly fine, but bland and forgettable bit of sci-fi action.
The problem with all this – besides the fact that mediocrity is hardly something a film should strive for or the best audiences should hope for – is it is the exact opposite of everything the original was. Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 “RoboCop” was gleefully un-PC, deliriously unhinged, and deliciously fearless. It made points, pushed buttons, and aimed to be shockingly entertaining. It was like “Wall Street” with bazookas. It had imagination to spare and dared to follow the filmmakers’ imaginations wherever they went. The result was – well, we all know it is a revered classic today. To remake a movie like that is stupid. But if someone must, remaking it as the total antithesis of everything that made it so special is giant, colossal fuck up. That’s why, despite the fact that I admittedly didn’t hate it as much as I might have, I can’t muster anything but utter disdain for its very existence either.
But there are some admirable qualities here for those tempted by the prospect of a new “RoboCop” flick, no matter how sanitized and impersonal. First, the performances are all pretty good. Joel Kinnaman from TV’s “The Killing” is a much more hardened and brooding Alex Murphy than Peter Weller’s idealistic cowboy in the original. In this version, Murphy and his partner Lewis (played by Michael Kenneth Williams, who fans just might notice is a black male and not a white female here) are on the trail of a ruthless crime syndicate who might-it can’t be!-but probably do have a mole in the Detroit police department. Murphy is getting too close, so the bad guys decide to do away with him via car bomb. This of course is a much less gruesome option for murdering the hero of your PG-13 movie than having him gun down into a bloody heap by a bunch of cackling, sadistic coke heads (However, this movie doesn’t mind showing suicide bombers explode themselves and kids get blown away by the ED-209 2.0 – because violence is fine for the whole family as long as there’s no blood, boobs or f-bombs, says the MPAA, apparently.) Anyway, Murphy loses everything but his head, lungs and one hand (I forget which one – right, I think) in the explosion. It’s good timing though to be reduced to three body parts, because it just so happens OmiCorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) is looking for a more human version of his robot street soldiers to sell the American people on. So, what the hell, make the head-lung-hand guy RoboCop!
This RoboCop is allowed to remember his past and maintain a relationship with his family, which is the most interesting new wrinkle the new writers here have come up with. But he still comes with a neurological implantation or something that renders him incapable of taking down his crooked superiors and creators. He also has an off-switch that is kind of a nuisance – always getting turned off at the most inconvenient, just-about-to-bust-the-bad-guys times.
There’s a framing device of sorts here with Samuel L. Jackson as the blowhard host of a propaganda news program on which he basically tries to manipulate his audience’s political views by inciting a bunch of fear and faux outrage. This is the remake’s version of the original film’s many breakaways to those satirical commercials. It is also, obviously, the remake’s attempt at some sort of commentary and social import. It’s a fine enough effort, and Jackson is fun to watch chew scenery as always, but it feels forced and shoehorned into this otherwise soulless Hollywood product. Verhoeven’s political satire in the original was anything but subtle, but it all felt like part of the world his film created. The remake, with its generic dirty cop saga at one end and scenes of drones and street soldiers wreaking havoc in Afghanistan at another, feels like two separate movies awkwardly spliced into one. And even more awkward is how all of this is muddled down into something acceptable for tween audiences. Needless to say, none of it makes any impact.
The real tragedy here is Michael Keaton. Always the most energetic and engaging of performers, and in far too few films as of late, Keaton is cast here as a fairly buttoned-down corporate type. He’s great in the role, mind you, but it gives him little opportunity to be the kind of volatilely energetic villain he’s capable of being. Why cast such a manic, livewire actor as a straight-laced CEO when his casting is practically begging for the role of the villain that Kurtwood Smith portrayed so devilishly in the original? Oh that’s right; because that part doesn’t exist here. In fact, there are like four or five bad guys in this thing, but it still manages to lack a strong villain.
Adding insult to injury, this film also features creepster extraordinaire Jackie Earl Haley as a shady military honcho-but-also-head-of-security-at-OmniCorp-I-think-and-RoboCop-trainer/hater-or something and fails to give him a role that is the least bit mysterious or intimidating. Why would you hire two actors with such flair and unique charisma as Keaton and Haley only to cast them in roles that don’t allow either to play to their strengths? They are fine here, and so are Kinnaman and Jackson – they all do their best with the material they’ve been given and inject some of their distinctive personalities where they can – but these are really nothing roles across the board.
Holy shit! I almost forgot. Gary Oldman is also in this! I don’t know why, but he is; and like all the other talent here, he’s better than the role or movie deserves.
This is the second bastardization of a 20-plus year-old Paul Verhoeven action classic Hollywood has churned out for mass consumption in as many years (last year’s infuriatingly inept “Total Recall” was the first). It’s one thing if Hollywood has become so bankrupt of original ideas they have to resort to remaking older films, but is it too much to ask they show some damn respect? If the very thing that made a film such a phenomenon was its fearless originality, why shart out a pale imitation that replaces everything that made the original so special with the same tired junk we can see in every other movie? I’d probably still bitch if Hollywood remade, say, “Mr. Mom” or “Adventures In Babysitting”, but have at ‘em if they must. As good as those movies are, stuff like that is simple, derivative, middle of the road entertainment. If all Hollywood needs is a recognizable title to put butts in seats, use stuff like that. But for the love of God, please stop tainting the legacy of these groundbreaking iconic classics with lazy renderings that don’t offer an ounce of the original film’s heart and soul, never mind a justification for why the remake even exists beyond the all mighty dollar.
2 Stars (Out of 4)