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Freshened ‘Robocop’ aims for social conscience

After 27 years elapsed and 100 million dollars invested, Jose Padilha’s latest film unveils the malleability of the “Robocop” franchise created by Paul Verhoeven back in 1987.

Rating: PG-13
Running time: 118 min.
Stars: Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton

Here’s a reboot that dares not to be derivative, but original in updating its predecessor, both visually and thematically. That it partly succeeds in a time where uninspired remakes and reboots are as ubiquitous as political stagnation in Washington is somewhat of a feat.

This minor feat begins in Detroit circa 2028 in a world ostensibly craving widespread safety. Using hyper-combative robots configured to protect and kill, OmniCorp — a multinational conglomerate with questionable motivations — has proven to reduce crime in every area it has reached.

The only nation with reservations about placing robots on the streets and into the line of fire, is America — the most lucrative untapped market.

When honest and stringent Detroit officer Alex Murphy suffers a car explosion (putting him in critical condition), OmniCorp sees their opening. Place a man inside of a robot, and you’ll have the unwavering support of the American people.

After Alex has been properly calibrated and constructed (by a hesitant Gary Oldman), he begins fighting crime. As with any product, there are immediately some malfunctions — especially when Alex attempts to reconnect with his wife (Abbie Cornish) and young son (John Paul Ruttan).

Emotions often clash with the mechanisms inside his head, leading to some internal confusion for Alex.

The viewer is never perplexed or lost though. Padilha’s makes sure we never miss a beat, circumnavigating Alex’s mind and thoughts with meticulous precision.

Modern technology allows for some extraordinary sequences involving Alex-turned-Robocop on patrol, attacking and arresting criminals. Where Verhoeven painted a picture, Padilha dives into it, planting the viewer (quite literally) in the same headspace as RoboCop.

Aside from visually upgrading the film, Padilha playfully pokes at contemporary politics.

Where Verhoeven’s RoboCop was driven by Reaganomics (i.e. private sector integrated with public services), this film tackles our problems with privacy (i.e. the drone crisis) and media sensationalism. Samuel L. Jackson plays a Bill O’Reilly-like character — a militarist news anchor who is in the tank for OmniCorp.

The film cuts to his program “The Novak Element” on a number of occasions where Jackson gets to implode, cut of guests with dissenting opinions and spew pro-robo rhetoric, insinuating that Congress is “pro-death” and “robo-phobic” by not supporting Robocop.

When presented on screen it’s all very (and scarily) familiar to what Americans can see every night, Monday to Friday on The O’Reilly Factor.

When not gleefully spoofing right-wing hawks, RoboCop goes into a little song and dance about corporate greed amidst urban decay, lightly linking the two together. By that point the film feels spent and sluggish, worn-down in an attempt to juggle heavy plot, exposition and themes.

As Alex vigorously attempts to solve his own murder (subsequently cleaning up the streets of Detroit), Michael Keaton is allotted some time to ham it up as Raymond Sellars, the CEO of OmniCorp. Sellars is smooth and sophisticated, a cunning and devious businessman who will not allow the Robocop project to fail.

Aiding Sellars in convincing the American people they need to embrace Robocop is Jay Barauchel — who essentially serves no purpose in this movie playing a marketing consultant.

Watching him on screen you get the feeling he either was a) promised more comedic lines, or b) smoked a joint with his friends on the set of This is the End and somehow wandered onto the RoboCop lot. Proposition “b” sounds more plausible.

Where the film regretfully begins to fall apart is in its final act, in a which a series of scenes are strung together by discordant action and rushed plotting. This doesn’t undue everything up until that point, but it does put a slight damper on an otherwise consistently captivating action-picture.

To break form and flow for a moment, there seems to be a tendency in this profession to quite literally write off any re-creation of a preexisting entity (no matter how outdated or banal it may be) as a money motivated machination concocted by the corrupt zealots of Hollywood.

Of course, this jagged skepticism of big, nefarious corporations (as in OmniCorp here) is often warranted. However, Jose Padilla’s RoboCop is a welcomed and galvanizing exception, a film that doesn’t settle for merely retelling Verhoeven’s original narrative, but updating it, both on a technical and socio-economical front.

Although the inevitable success of this film will undoubtedly spawn sequels, perhaps the “RoboCop” series would be best utilized as an ever-evolving treatise on modern times.

In this form RoboCop could resurface every 27 years to astutely remind us of what’s gone awry in our society. Perhaps by then Bill O’Reilly will cease to exist in the public eye.

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