Russell Baillie

Russell Baillie is the Herald’s entertainment editor

Movie review: RoboCop

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Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) wakes up to find his doctor (Gary Oldman) has some bad news.
Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) wakes up to find his doctor (Gary Oldman) has some bad news.

There's an old joke that came to mind watching one of the many scenes of bionic wonderment in this earnest, garbled but better-than-expected reboot of the 80s cyborg sci-fi action-satire.

It goes: As a nervous patient get wheeled into theatre, he asks: "Doctor, please tell me the truth, will I be able to play the cello after the operation?

"I don't see why not," replies the surgeon.

"That's great. Because I couldn't before."

Ba-dum-tsssssh ...

Sorry for that. But RoboCop is a BYO joke kind of film - its comedy is confined to the soundtrack, which offers the Tin Man's Wizard of Oz song If I Only Had a Heart and The Clash's I Fought the Law over the closing credits.

That cello gag occurred to me in a scene involving an amputee classical guitarist playing with his deft new alloy fingers, installed and designed by Dr Dennett Norton, OmniCorp's chief bio-engineering boffin.

But it seems the prosthetics are a bit sensitive. As soon as our musician patient puts too much feeling into his playing, his artificial digits can't handle it. Try to quell your emotions, says the good doctor, played by Gary Oldman. "I need emotions to play," replies the musician, his dreams dashed of ever playing under the stage name "RoboFlamenco".

The scene is meant to illustrate a problem that will soon dog our cyborg hero, just as it did his 1987 ancestor: that coming back from the dead to find yourself biological software running bionic hardware isn't an easy adjustment to make.

And that, in the case of Detroit detective Alex Murphy, his latent human instincts, impulses and memories are just going to cause problems, especially when he starts wondering who was it that failed to kill him in the first place.

Paul Verhoeven's original film, which had Peter Weller in the suit, did that too. But as a film it was far more outlandish, cynical and satirical, extrapolating its future world from a Reagan era of burgeoning corporatisation and inner city decay.

Those extra layers made what could have been a very dumb, occasionally nasty movie smart and enduring. Arguably, it's still the once-provocative Dutch director's best American film. It was effectively the third great android movie of that decade after Blade Runner and Terminator.

Fans of the original might complain a remake can't hope to recapture the original's strange dark spark - just as its increasingly silly 1990s sequels already failed to, before RoboCop underwent further kid-friendly incarnations in cartoons and videogames.

But at least this RoboCop, from Brazilian director Padilha, who undoubtedly got this, his first US gig on the strength of his hardcore Elite Squad police movies at home, isn't a straight rehash. It attempts its own rejigged if muddled story that is also product of its times. It's also pitched at grown-ups. Apart from some surgical scenes in the OmniCorp labs, it's largely gore-free. Its action scenes, heavy on both jerky-cam and night-vision shoot-outs have their moments but not a lot distinguish them.

Its contrived premise attempts to equate contemporary unease about the United States' use of drone weaponry to an America of 2028 where OmniCorp is desperate to crack open a domestic law-enforcement market for the military robot technology the Pentagon already uses in foreign incursions.

Only, that's against the rules in a "robo-phobic"America. Those laws OmniCorp boss Raymond Sellars (Keaton, in a protracted audition for the next Steve Jobs movie) wants repealed.

So does Fox-News-esque pundit Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson) whose frequent broadcast interjections are a nod to the original's TV news clips. But having a curiously coiffed Jackson doing his scenery-chewing "thang" while waving his arms through one virtual news graphic after another just becomes a distraction.

Sellars and his marketing department figure putting a human face on - and seemingly in control of - a semi-organic security droid might just sway public opinion about RoboCops patrolling the streets.

Conveniently, Detective Murphy gets car-bombed, distraught wife Clara (Cornish) signs him up for an OmniCorp makeover, and Dr Norton drops any objections to his brilliance being used to make a programmable weapon using what little is left of the cop's mortal remains.

The rest doesn't offer a lot that surprises - unless you count Oldman's character seemingly swinging between maverick Dr Frankenstein and OmniCorp toady from scene to scene.

Hers might be a bigger role than her 1987 predecessor's but Cornish's Mrs Murphy offers buckets of tears and not much else to remember her by.

But as Murphy himself, Kinnaman is required to do a lot more - and with his visor up - than was demanded of Weller in the original.

He's really good, compelling enough to haul us with him though some increasingly nonsensical plotting leading to the unsatisfactory final showdown.

He does help make RoboCop, the character at least, an idea whose time may have come again, even if this one's funnybone got lost in the rebuild.


RoboCop


Stars: 3/5
Cast: Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Abbie Cornish, Samuel L. Jackson
Director: Jose Padilha
Rating: M (violence)
Running time: 117 mins
Verdict: Reasonable Robo-redo

- NZ Herald

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