Friday, 14 February 2014

Robocop; There are things science shouldn't bring back

Starring former Batman! Former Commissioner Gordon! Former Rorschach from Watchmen! Continuing Nick Fury! Omar!

Also starring Joel Kinnamon, whose last big gig was a reworking of a better original, the US do-over of the Killing. Maybe he should be looking at doing more original work.

Lots of people were getting all hissy at the idea of remaking Robocop at all, as though it were some species of cinematic miracle which should never be tampered with. Rather than a hyper-violent piece of self-aware crap which tried to smuggle a satire on 80s American mores into a cop actioner. My own attitude was, by all means, if you think you can improve on that, give it a shot. I saw the original in actual America, which is not something I’m proud of, since I was only in the US for ten days and it’s a shame that I spent any of that time doing things I could just as well have done at home. I didn’t get the impression that the audience picked up on the satire at all, but then again neither did I. I just thought it was a weirdly violent movie with hilarious fake commercials embedded in it (still my favourite bit). Playing the violence for laughs wasn’t exactly transgressive. This was the 80s, when every second movie had some flat faced ubermensch schwacking the untermenschen with a quip. Not that even that was terribly 80s; Bond had got that party started long before.

Robocop isn’t, then, anything I think needs to be taken seriously. It’s not even Verhoeven’s biggest misfire (that’s a dead heat between Starship Troopers and Showgirls, if you must ask), just another reasonably solid action movie in a decade full of them. Quite why anyone felt it was worth remaking at all was more of an issue for me than the notion that it was blasphemous. Quite how it took three studios to get it done is an even bigger puzzle, though I got a laugh out of them redubbing the MGM lion’s roar with Samuel L Jackson’s warmup noises for his first TV rant of the evening.

Enough of the precedents. Does the new clone work on its merits?

Nah. Robocop is a bust as a character. The suit doesn’t give any actor, however good, much to work with. And amazingly, thirty years of progress in effects haven’t done a damn thing to make CGI Robocop any more interesting to watch than rubber-suit-and-wing-it Robocop was. So the character can’t save you, and the effects never save you; just like the original, you’re going to live and die on your villains. Robocop has utterly blah villains. There’s no Clarence Boddicker, nor yet his posse of anarchically violent morons. And Michael Keaton can’t single-handedly deliver the deadpan evil of that 80s corporate wickedness dream team of Dan O’Herlihy, Ronny Cox and Miguel Ferrer. Last, but not least, fun and all as Samuel L Jackson’s composite of every lunatic from Fox News is, the problem is that he’s too damn plausible to undermine his own message the way a satire should. They needed someone more slippery and ambiguous.

Of course, it doesn’t help the satire that the Samuel L Jackson “Robots are the answer” message seems to make objective sense. The robots get it right more than the humans do, and for all the angst about giving them the power to open up on humans, any time we see the robots in action they’re clinical, dispassionate and accurate, putting the hurt only where it’s needed. The first - the real - Robocop was much more straightforward; as soon as we met ED-209, it shot some hapless schlub to hamburger because of  a programming glitch. This Robocop’s robots are disquieting only in their perfection.

Taken purely on its merits, it’s a movie which starts out strong, with robots patrolling the streets of liberated Tehran, and gets weaker the longer it runs. What makes that harder to take is that the original started out strong and kept kicking it up in every act after that. The final gun battle is a bloodbath; the climax proper is biting and full of black humour, with the true villains of the piece undercut by their own cleverness. It’s not high art, but it’s well put together. This new version has none of that bite, none of that sense of things building to a crescendo.

God, as I said at the end, that wasn’t good. But like a lot of things that aren’t good, it had enough good things in it to make me wonder about how it could have been. One thing I wondered about was whether it would have been more fun if Gary Oldman’s role as the mad scientist had been filled with expert mad scientist John Noble. And the other thing, and I know you’re all with me on this, was to wish that, as long as they had OMAR on the cast list, they’d made him into Robocop. As Michael Keaton said “Make it tactical. Make it more black.” That would have been worth the effort.

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