“The Wizard of Oz” has lived at the very center of popular culture for more than a hundred years. David Lynch cribbed from the story for his film “Wild at Heart,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” is filled with references from books and isn’t C3PO just the Tin Man in a gold suit?
A new film—actually a remake of a much-loved 1987 movie—brings a new Tin Man to town. “RoboCop” stars Joel Kinnaman as the half human, half robot police officer who struggles to find his heart.
Set in 2028 the story takes off when Detroit cop and family man Alex James Murphy (“The Killing’s” Kinnaman) is almost blown to bits by a drug dealer looking to silence him. Burnt on eighty percent of his body, missing limps, deaf and blind in one eye, the bomb appeared to have done the job. That is until OmniCorp, a multinational company run by ruthless businessman Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) sees a marketing opportunity with the fallen hero.
The company’s totally robotic law enforcement drones are being used worldwide with effective but deadly results. OmniCorp wants expand into the lucrative American market but is stymied by Senator Hubert Dreyfuss (Zach Grenier) and his question: How can a robot know what it means to take a life if it has never lived a life?
Murphy is the answer. The catastrophically injured officer becomes the ghost in the machine, an organic brain for a mostly robotic body in a suit tailored by Daft Punk. He’s a rootin’, tootin’ crime fighting machine, but will the human part of the robot fight its way to the surface and allow Alex to get his robo-revenge on those who have done him wrong?
Paul Verhoeven’s “RoboCop” was social satire that used ideas about corporations and privatizing the police as a jumping off point for some pointed—if action packed—commentary. Today’s “RoboCop” doesn’t have the same shock appeal.
In our world where Detroit has gone bankrupt, unable to afford decent policing and national food chains use yoga mat chemicals in their bread, the black humor of the first film is now a dark reality laced with some man-machine ennui. It’s less fun than the original, but does have some high points.
Swedish born Kinnaman gives the character a Nordic sense of ennui that would make Ingmar Bergman grin. Alex is, for a while at least, tormented by the idea of his very existence. He brings some stoicism to the role and does an OK job of jawbone acting under the heavy mask but the emotional connection that Peter Weller forged with the characters (and the audience) in the original is missing. Murphy’s wife is nicely played by Abbie Cornish but despite some scenes with her and his son David (John Paul Ruttan) the story is focused elsewhere.
More expressive are Gary Oldham and Michael Keaton. Oldham takes a generic, morally divided scientist and gives him spark, while Keaton relishes playing the bad guy. Samuel L. Jackson also livens things up as a Glen Beck type TV host who fuels the flames of controversy with incendiary statements like, “Has the US Senate become pro-crime?”
All three are big performances that stand out in a big, loud movie, but central to the story is a smaller role from Jay Baruchel as OmniCorp’s head of marketing. He’s a corporate weasel who works amoral marketing angles to make RoboCop palatable to the public. “He transforms!” he says. “Kids love it. Focus numbers are through the roof.” He’s the real wizard behind the curtain.
Baruchel doesn’t over or underplay the character, he simply allows him to breath and in doing so creates the most chillingly realistic portrait of venality in the film.
“RoboCop” is a more generic film than its predecessor. It simply doesn’t have the vulgar verve that Verhoeven brought to the original, but between the explosions and bullets it does tackle some big, timely questions about drone warfare and corporate responsibility. The movie doesn’t exactly take the time to tackle and then wrestle these ideas to the ground, but hey, at least the new suit is really cool. It’s enough to make Oz’s Tin Man jealous.