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‘Robocop’ remake lacks intent, insight of original

Marianne Jean-Baptiste Joel Kinnaman 'RoboCop.' | Kerry Hayes~ColumbiPictures photo

Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Joel Kinnaman in "RoboCop." | Kerry Hayes~Columbia Pictures photo

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‘ROBOCOP’ ★★

Alex Murphy Joel Kinnaman

Dr. Dennett Norton Gary Oldman

Raymond Sellars Michael Keaton

Clara Murphy Abbie Cornish

Rick Mattox Jackie Earle Haley

Columbia Pictures presents a film directed by Jose Padilha and written by Joshua Zetumer and Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner. Running time: 118 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of action including frenetic gun violence throughout, brief strong language, sensuality and some drug material). Opens Wednesday at local theaters.

Roger Ebert's review of the 1987 'Robocop'

Updated: February 18, 2014 7:14PM



It could have been worse. That’s about the best I can say about the 2014 version of “Robocop,” which takes advantage of the far superior special-effects technology available now and notin 1987, but doesn’t match up to the original when it comes to story, cast and having the steel, um, bearings to commit to the material.

It’s 1980s revival week at the movies, starting with the reboot of “Robocop,” hitting theaters Wednesday, followed on Friday by new versions (neither which I’ve seen as of this writing) of the deadly dull dud “Endless Love” (1981) and the wickedly funny, smart and sexy “About Last Night…” (1986), and I guess we should be grateful we’re not also getting remakes of “Leonard Part 6” and “Shanghai Surprise” just in time for Valentine’s Day 2014.

Paul Verhoeven’s original “Robocop” (with Peter Weller perfectly cast as the murdered police officer in futuristic “Old Detroit” who is reborn as a killing machine) was an effective social commentary, an exceedingly violent sci-fi thriller and — and sometimes this part is forgotten — a brutally funny black comedy.

To be sure, the original “Robocop” exploited murder and vigilante justice while also giving us pause to think, but Verhoeven didn’t hedge his bets. In some ways the remake is a more cynical effort, with its PG-13 violence and sometimes painfully obvious messages about American imperialism and ultra-conservative TV media hosts. (Just because you cast Samuel L. Jackson in the role of “Pat Novak,” a far-right demagogue who tells pacifists to “Stop whining” and cuts off the mic of a liberal senator at will, doesn’t make the character any less of a caricature.)

The problems with the remake begin with the casting of Swedish actor Joel Kinnaman (TV’s “The Killing”) as Alex Murphy/Robocop. Whereas Peter Weller delivered his mechanically filtered punch lines with deadpan precision in the original, Kinnaman — who has done fine work in other roles — manages to come across as a wooden human being and a wooden robot, and that ain’t good when the film centers on Alex’s struggle to stay in touch with his human side even as the forces of evil are conspiring to turn him into a conscience-free killing machine.

In a smart but almost too sly performance given the material, Michael Keaton is the billionaire industrialist Raymond Sellars (how’s that for a subtle character name?), head of the powerful international conglomerate OmniCorp (how’s that for a subtle evil corporation name?), which uses robotic enforcers to keep the peace around the world — except for in the United States, where the ruthlessly efficient droids have been banned because of fears they can’t “feel what it’s like to kill.”

When Detroit Police Officer Alex Murphy is blown to pieces in an explosion that leaves with him only a face, an upper torso and one arm, Sellars seizes the opportunity to create the first hybrid — a nearly indestructible “Robocop” who still has the capacity for empathy, memory and love for his wife and son. Maybe that’ll win over the Senate!

Not that Robocop’s first visit home goes well. There’s a mood-killing thwunk sound when the Mrs. (Abbie Cornish) hugs him, and his poor son looks like he’s on the verge of freaking out when Dad invites him to feel the suit of armor.

The great Gary Oldman, who does the most entertainingly inexplicable SHOUT TO THE MOUNTAIN line readings in mediocre films this side of Nicolas Cage, livens things up as Dr. Dennett Norton, the genius who created Robocop but apparently didn’t think things through on all fronts. (Aimee Garcia is his fetching assistant, who wears a white lab coat so we know she’s serious and works a gadget that looks like the iPad18. I want one!)

We’re told OmniCorp spent some $2.6 billion turning Alex into Robocop, but when things go haywire, Dr. Norton sometimes resorts to such scientific methods as standing in front of the big guy, waving his arms and shouting, “Alex! It’s me!” There’s also a lot of, “This is interesting, let’s see what happens,” when the clear move would be to shut this guy down.

It takes far too long for Robocop to become Robocop. There’s lots of angst, as Dr. Norton and his team adjust Alex’s Dopamine’s levels as if they’re tuning a piano. Leave the levels THERE there, and Alex is lamenting about not being able to watch Red Wings games with his kid; drop the levels to THERE there, and he doesn’t even recognize the lad. Talk about playing with someone’s head.

Director Jose Padilha (the “Elite Squad” movies) knows how to create slick, sometimes clever fast-moving battle sequences, at one point acknowledging how much this new “Robocop” resembles a video game. But other than Keaton’s Sellars, the bad guys are mostly generic nitwits. Even Jackie Earle Haley’s evil henchman is but a pale imitation of other, far viler characters Haley has played in recent years.

Meanwhile, the invaluable Michael K. Williams isn’t given enough to do as Alex’s partner, and the ending is so predictable you can start putting on your coat and searching for your gloves and scarf about 10 minutes before the closing credits.

Maybe they’ll make a modern-day “Robocop 2.” I’d rather see a whole movie about how Pat Novak arrived at his politics, not to mention that wig and wardrobe.

Email: rroeper@suntimes.com

Twitter: @richardroeper



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