Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Robo remake blander, but not without brains

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Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Joel Kinnaman.

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Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Joel Kinnaman.

A PG rating is the telltale sign this remake is departing from the ultra-violent 1987 progenitor from director Paul Verhoeven.

One could justifiably fear an insipid, watered-down version of the Verhoeven experience. It was only two years ago Sony Pictures released the blah, nonsensical reboot of Verhoeven's entertaining Total Recall.

Fortunately RoboCop the younger adeptly sidesteps that fate, thanks to a fresh, adventurous, reasonably smart approach to the material.

The year is 2028. (The original was set in 2015. Makes you think.) The city is still Detroit. A good cop, Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman of TV's The Killing), is trying to take down persistent master criminal Antoine Vallon (Patrick Garrow), but is routinely stymied by corrupt fellow cops.

When Murphy becomes too much of a thorn in the side of the bad guys, he is targeted with a car-bomb attack, which leaves him minus a couple of limbs and a tenuous hold on life.

Enter the slick corporate entity OmniCorp. The company's smooth-talking CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) is looking to break into the American law-enforcement market with robotic officers, but an anti-robot law prevents that particular windfall. Sellars drafts Dr. Dennet Norton (Gary Oldman) to circumvent the law by putting what's left of Murphy into an unstoppable robot body. Murphy's wife Clara (Abbie Cornish) signs off on the procedure to save her husband's life. Everybody wins.

Or do they? When the doctor is forced to "turn off" the brain functions that retain Murphy's humanity, the hero cop becomes a pawn in a game between the people who care for him and comparatively ruthless corporate interests.

Despite a few lively action sequences, this remake is bland oatmeal compared to Verhoeven's jubilantly transgressive original, which was equal parts sci-fi, pulp crime, Christian allegory and black comedy.

To their credit, director José Padhila and screenwriter Joshua Zetumer don't even try to duplicate Verhoeven's achievement. Instead, they choose to make the film pertinent to the year 2014.

Remember, in 1987, the premise of a human-robot hybrid was sufficiently far-fetched that Verhoeven and his screenwriters were given free licence to invent a raw, dystopian tale where psycho criminals (Kurtwood Smith's indelible villain Clarence Boddicker) are matched in viciousness by conniving corporate suits (Ronny Cox's indelible villain Dick Jones).

Now, in an age when the use of combat drones is being debated in the United States, the RoboCop scenario is actually fairly credible. So Padhila plays it subtly, to the extent that it takes a while for the audience to zero in on who the most significant bad guys are. (That was not a problem in the original.)

On the satiric front, to delineate a stupid, unquestioning culture, we don't get a bad comedian with his "I'd buy that for a dollar" catchphrase. We get Samuel L. Jackson's right-wing news host Pat Novak, a corporate shill for the military industrial complex, who condemns his country's "robophobia" when it comes to allowing killer robots patrolling the streets. If Novak were a real guy, a Fox News deal would already be in the works.

On a personal note: My wife has never let me forget that I took her to Verhoeven's RoboCop on our second date. If I hadn't been so distracted by the brilliance of the movie, I would have better noticed her cringing at the violence and sadism on the screen.

For what it's worth, guys, this version of RoboCop is a somewhat more acceptable date movie.

Happy Valentine's Day, everybody.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 12, 2014 C3

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