Chuck Koplinksi: This is not your father's 'Robocop'
When Paul Verhoeven's "Robocop" burst onto screens in 1987 it caused a sensation, primarily because of its excessive violence but also because of its cutting edge special effects. It also played out as a right-wing fantasy in which law and order was dispensed with impunity, with the title character serving as judge, jury, and at times executioner, cleaning up the crime-ridden streets of Detroit with an efficiency that Rush Limbaugh and his ilk look back fondly on.
The new remake from director Jose Padilha ("Bus 174") tones down the violence (a bit) and devotes much more time to the moral and political implications of melding man with machine, foreseeing a future in which it's uncertain who has the upper hand: us or them.
Obviously, this is hardly a new concept. But in the hands of screenwriter Joshua Zetumer, the film is an unexpectedly intimate look at the loss of humanity in the name of scientific advancement.
In the near future, OmniCorp, a technology firm at the forefront of robotics, is on the verge of making grand social change. The folks there have devised a drone that's in use in Iran to help "keep the peace," though intimidating the locals is far closer to the truth. As seen in an opening sequence that shows them cleaning up an uprising of insurgents with extreme prejudice, there's no question they're efficient.
Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), the CEO of OmniCorp, is eager to get them on the streets of America to help and eventually replace traditional police officers. With a potential revenue stream of $600 billion if this goes through, who can blame him?
However, a law's been passed prohibiting this from happening, as "robophobic" citizens are afraid these machines lack humanity.
Fate drops a sack of meat at Sellars' feet in the form of police officer Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), who's been critically injured in the line of duty. There's really not much left after the assassination attempt on him that was ordered by Detroit crime lord Antoine Vallon (Patrick Garrow), but there's enough for Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) to integrate the man with a machine of his own making. The result is an automated cop with a touch of humanity that could pave the way for Sellars to reap the billions he craves.
But the cyborg must prove he's worth the investment, so he's set loose to clean up the Motor City and along the way, bring down those who wished to kill him.
This film isn't short on action, and while at times it suffers from the modern tendency to edit everything together in a seizure-inducing flurry, overall the gun violence, bloodshed and pyrotechnics should satisfy the adrenaline junkies in the audience.
Yet, there's more at play as Padilha focuses on Murphy's emotional turmoil regarding his wife Clara (a strong Abbie Cornish) and their son David (John Paul Ruttan). Murphy's guilt is palpable knowing that his zealous approach toward his job has made a normal family life impossible, but when Norton surgically alters his brain (during a gruesome open-skull procedure David Cronenberg would be proud to call his own) to eliminate almost all emotional responses, this casts Sellars and his crew as being far colder than the machine they're manipulating.
The symbolism is obvious, as our consciousness being consumed by technology is the theme that drives the film. (Notice how Padilha's camera circles characters in tech settings to underscore this.)
Equally frightening is the reminder that our privacy is becoming more endangered by the day. What with technology on all fronts having grown by leaps and bounds since the original's release, what this Robocop can do is, without question, pretty cool but he's also the embodiment of all the worst aspects of the Patriot Act. With access to all security cameras in the city as well as phone records, arrest histories, outstanding warrants and everything the internet can provide, this metallic lawman is a worthy adversary that not only deters the criminal element but also stokes the paranoia of citizens, liberal and conservative alike.
Though the film's climax hinges on a plot development that springs more from wishful thinking than the movie's internal logic, "Robocop" is a worthy update of Verhoeven's original as it wisely takes that production's premise and updates it to reflect geo-political and domestic concerns in the post-9/11 world. That the film has a heart and conscience in this era of vacuous entertainment is some kind of miracle.
'Robocop' (3-1/2 stars out of 4.)
Cast: Joel Kinnaman, Abbie Cornish, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Jackie Earle Haley, Jay Baruchel, Jennifer Ehle and Samuel L. Jackson.
Directed by Jose Padilha; produced by Marc Abraham, Brad Fischer and Eric Newman; screenplay by Joshua Zetumer.
An MGM Pictures release. 108 minutes. Rated PG-13 (intense sequences of action including frenetic gun violence throughout, brief strong language, sensuality and some drug material). At the AMC Village Mall 6, Carmike 13 and Savoy 16.
Also new in theaters
"Monuments Men" missing momentum. (2-1/2 stars) George Clooney's "The Monuments Men" has the sort of pedigree that Oscar winners are made of. What with an all-star cast including former Academy Award recipients Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, Jean Dujardin (as well as Clooney) and Bill Murray, John Goodman and Bob Balaban, with subject matter that members of the academy love to embrace, this looked like a surefire winner when the production was announced.
Columbia Pictures, which produced "Men," was so confident it had a contender on its hands that it slated the film for a Christmas Day release so it would be eligible for the awards being presented for 2013. However, when Clooney informed Columbia that he wouldn't be able to meet this deadline and insisted it be released in 2014, this was the first indication that perhaps "Men" wasn't going to live up to expectations.
It's not that "Men" is a bad film; it's just merely a lackluster effort that despite all of the talent involved lacks a sense of urgency or energy. Making this minor misfire all the more curious is that its subject is a fascinating one, a little-known story about a small unit of men charged with saving millions of pieces of plundered art, which happen to be spread throughout France and Germany, as World War II winds down.
Based on a highly readable historical tome by Robert Edsel and Bret Witter, the film does a wonderful job of capturing the look and feel of the era, going to great lengths to ensure that the clothes, decor and food are all just right.
Ultimately, its disjointed and overreaching script lead to its downfall.
Clooney is art historian Frank Stokes who, when we first see him, is giving a presentation to FDR, imploring him to take steps to find and protect the many, many pieces of priceless art they know have been stolen throughout Europe. The president follows his advice and before you know it, Stokes is in charge of a diverse group of men whose mission sometimes runs counter to that of traditional military units. Included are Americans James Granger (Damon), Richard Campbell (Murray), Walter Garfield (Goodman) and Preston Savitz (Balaban) as well as Frenchman Jean Claude Clermont (Dujardin) and Brit Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville). All have their area of specialty, whether it be architecture, restoration or art history, and each of their back stories are mentioned, barely filled in and in dire need of greater detail.
Once the men hit the ground — arriving in France on the beaches of Normandy some weeks after the D-Day invasion — what ensues is a rather odd, "Dirty Half-Dozen" adventure in which the group is split into pairs and sent off to various parts of France to track down leads as to where paintings, pieces of sculpture and holy artifacts may be hidden. All the while, Granger is in Paris where he's been told to make contact with Claire Simone (Blanchett), a curator who worked for one of the Nazis in charge of moving pieces out of the country. She might have key bits of information that can help the crew.
The film never really works up a proper head of steam, and surprisingly Clooney has a hard time juggling the various plot lines that play out. There's a sense that none of them is fully developed and much time is wasted on scenes that add nothing to the story. A sequence that finds Campbell and Savitz trapped by a nervous young Nazi soldier is slightly humorous but tells us nothing about the characters we don't already know. A scene in which Garfield and Clermont have to neutralize a sniper contains a bit of a surprise, but it is also superfluous. A few more moments like this are sprinkled throughout and they hobble the film, preventing it from engaging us as it should.
It comes as no surprise that the cast is a delight to watch, with the chemistry between Goodman and Dujardin being one of the most pleasant aspects. However, fine actors, top-notch production values and a great story aren't enough for "The Monuments Men." Clooney's inability to find the proper pace as well as a way to develop its various narrative threads effectively leaves us with a history lesson that, while somewhat sparking our interest, leaves us to learn more about its subject on our own.
"Vampire Academy" lacks bite. (2 stars) Amid the wave of books that came in the wake of Stephenie Meyer's "Twilight," Richelle Mead's "The Vampire Academy" contains just enough similar elements to that blockbuster series to catch the eye of studio executives looking for the next big thing to separate teens from their disposable income.
But much of the problem with the film, based on the first novel in the series, is that it is far too similar to the saga of the Cullen clan to emerge from its shadow. Its derivative nature is inescapable, and though director Mark Waters ("Mean Girls") does his best to generate a post-modern feel to the affair, it all comes off as forced and obvious, making its story seem more ridiculous than it already is.
To get the audience up to speed, the film's primary smart aleck, Rose (Zoey Deutch), explains the hierarchy of the bloodsuckers at play while Waters does us the favor of scrolling the names of the various undead tribes across the screen. Seems that the Moroi are the peaceful, brainy vampires and the Dhampirs are half human/half vampire who are trained to protect the Moroi from the Strigoi, who are down-and-dirty bloodsuckers that have no conscience and want to control the vampire world. Got it?
No matter; it all goes by in a blur, and the only thing you have to remember is that the Moroi are pale, the Dhampir kick butt and the Strigoi are really, really mean. Of course, a great deal of time is given to the various fights that break out — all of them poorly staged and edited together rapidly to ensure that none of them will engage you. Amid the action scenes a muddled story unfolds involving Lissa (Lucy Fry), a princess who's been targeted for assassination, and Rose, the Dhampir apprentice who's been assigned to protect her.
A great many red herrings are thrown our way until we find out who's behind the nefarious plot, but if you know anything about the manner in which films are cast, it becomes apparent early on that a veteran movie actor must be here for a reason.
I'm not sure what there's more of: wasted opportunities or stilted performances. A lesbian relationship between Lissa and Rose is hinted at but never fully explored, while it's suggested that the various vampire factions represent different strata of our society. None of this is fleshed out as more time is given to lame quips and flimsy love stories than providing any sort of subtext.
Granted, an expectation such as this for a movie of this sort is unrealistic. But one can hope that one day a teen-centric film will take the time to be about more than raging hormones and age-inappropriate fashion. I know keep dreaming.
For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow Chuck Koplinski on Twitter at @ckoplinski. For his blog, head to news-gazette.com/blogs/cinema-scoping. Koplinski can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.