Thursday, February 6, 2014

'RoboCop' (2014) directed by José Padilha

Somewhere deep within the metal heart of RoboCop lies the soul of a good movie.  This is a deeply frustrating film, not because it does anything particularly awful, but because it displays huge potential only to repeatedly squander it in a sea of poorly shot action and poor  production choices.  Paul Verhoeven left some big shoes to fill and Padilha tries his best to step into them, updating and rethinking the themes of the original for 2014.  At times he gets scarily close, equalling or maybe even briefly surpassing the original.  But more frequently the film ends up as a shadow of its predecessor, struggling desperately to carve out its own set of iconography.

The skeleton of RoboCop's plot is lifted wholesale from the original; cop Alex Murphy is all but killed and resurrected in a robot body by an amoral corporation.  He's put back on the streets as a demonstration of corporation might and technical skill and proceeds to efficiently clean up crime. But stopping muggings and stick-ups is only putting a plaster on a gaping wound, and soon Robocop works his way up the criminal ladder, discovering that his corporate creators are the real criminals.

So far, so familiar.  But RoboCop 2014 is a remarkably different beast to Robocop 1987, less a remake and more a reimagining of what a robot cop means to a contemporary audience. Plucking visual and tonal references from everything from Apple, Fox News to Call of Duty, this is very much a film about 'now', with a surprisingly explicit condemnation of US imperial hegemony.  We open in a Tehran under US occupation, drones now occupying land as well as air - an army of robot Gestapo agents demanding to see the citizen's papers and forcibly subjecting them to invasive airport security style body scans, seeing through clothes and onto the flesh below.

As the Iranians are humiliated and dehumanised, Samuel L Jackson's ooh-rah Republican news anchor whoops and hollers from within his holographic news studio, explaining to us how happy these people are now that they've been brought under the cosh of good old American power.  But things go south, and before our eyes we see a child vapourised in a blizzard of bullets from an ED-209.  It's a ballsy opening that shocks you into sitting up and paying attention - you find yourself thinking in disbelief "have they actually nailed a RoboCop remake?!".

Unfortunately this is a fleeting joy, and from this great opening sequence things go downhill pretty quickly.  We're then thrown into the life of doomed undercover cop Alex Murphy, and things begin to drag.  As we watch Murphy battling a personality-free arms dealer the energy that the film had completely drains away.  The low point of the entire film is a really poorly shot gunfight that's honestly one of the dullest action sequences I've seen in a long time, packed full of shakycam and bad lighting.  We all know Murphy is doomed, but the film meanders in these doldrums for way too long - it's almost a relief when Murphy is taken out - finally we get the robot cop we've paid to see.

Just as we've written off the film it perks up again, with the sequences of Murphy adjusting to his new life some damn effective body horror.  This sharp uptick in quality shows us exactly what parts of this story Padilha is interested in.  Perhaps the most striking image of the whole film follows: Murphy gazing in suicidal horror at what remains of him, a small, quivering heap of guts.  Then, as soon as things get interesting we're thrown into another rather dull action sequence that seems to go on forever (though bizarrely soundtracked by the yodelling 70s rock of Hocus Pocus).

Soon the basic problem with the film becomes apparent; for every step it takes forwards it takes two back.  RoboCop is a film pulling in two directions; on one hand it wants to be a serious exploration of moral personhood, examining the difference between machine and man and on the other there's a crowd-pleasing blam blam action film.  In trying to cater to both audiences it ends up pleasing neither.  

Abbie Cornish as Clara Murphy is saddled with a thankless, one-note role (and a crap hairdo)
It's telling that whenever an action sequence begins you can't wait for it to be over; the spatial geography and even the number of combatants confusing.  There's a bizarre decision to have the 'big' gunfight of the film take place in pitch darkness, the action choreography somehow managing to make a scene where Murphy essentially walks down a straight corridor shooting faceless, personality-less goons impossible to follow.  Similarly, in the climactic scenes you can't even tell how many giant robots he's facing off against.  You find yourself counting the minutes until the film gets back to seriously exploring the philosophical ramifications of robot cops - a perverse feeling considering this is purportedly an action film.

Joel Kinnamon's RoboCop isn't a patch on Peter Weller, but that's not really his fault. There's a narrative decision mid-way through the film that functions as a directive to Kinnamon to stop acting, resultingly for quite a large portion of the film Robocop is less a character and more of a plot device: a talking point for the supporting cast to discuss rather than someone we identify with.  Fortunately RoboCop is blessed with an outstanding supporting cast; both Jackie Earl-Haley and Michael Keaton both welcome presences whenever they're on screen. The undisputed highlight is Gary Oldman as the doctor who resurrects Murphy and becomes a kind of techno-Dad to him.  He's so good, and so central to the plot you could probably make a case that he's the true protagonist.

That all said, RoboCop is absolutely worth a watch, if only for the glimmers of actual brilliance that are within the film.  For every uninspired bit of set dressing and occasionally cheap looking special effect there's a beautiful sequence of an amputee learning to play guitar with prosthetic hands.  Though Padilha's Detroit is an boringly identikit urban environment, his Tehran and China are both striking and well-framed.  While the central gangster baddie in the film is bland as bland can be, there's a decent amount of nuance to Keaton's evil Steve Jobs turn and Oldman's ethically conflicted scientist.  For every boneheaded, antiseptic action scene there's an incisive bit of philosophy or razor sharp satire.   

This is a flawed, disjointed and cumbersome watch.  But much like its robot hero there's a core of humanity fighting for recognition deep within.  Ultimately Padilha's RoboCop is a failure, but undoubtedly a noble one.


RoboCop is on general release from 7 February 2014.

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