There are many words you can’t say on a billboard but in Martin McDonagh’s darkly comic and borderline brilliant Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri calling out the local sheriff for failing to bring to justice a rapist, arsonist and murderer is fair game. At least from a legal standpoint. This is the set-up for a crime saga unlike any other, McDonagh’s film a foul-mouthed mystery brimming with colorful characters, its jet-black tone and surprising emotionality capable of causing fits of laughter and bouts of urgent somberness in what is one of the best films of 2017. Read More
Directed by José Padilha
Starring Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Abbie Cornish, Jackie Earle Haley, Michael K. Williams, Samuel L. Jackson, Jay Baruchel, Zach Grenier
Action, Crime, Sci-Fi
RoboCop tries to make communion between global politicking black satire and “ohhhh shiny” skirmishes but winds up not quite able to answer the many questions it raises. Regardless, the fact that this supposed actioner wants to stick its nose into moral territory and sniff around makes for a far more interesting experience than any paint-by-numbers shoot-em-up that I was expecting.
In the oeuvre of action movies, the RoboCop of yore was known for its balls-to-the-walls, blood ‘n’ guts characteristics so you’ll be surprised to hear that this 2014 remake is so light on action sequences that it makes The Lion King look violent (but let’s be honest, The Lion King is pretty violent). There are maybe two instances of what one would consider violence, both blaring shootouts sans a spot of blood, and an exposition-driven explosion of note. Other than that, most of the distressing PG-13 rated stuff takes place in a Clorox-blasted laboratory.
Beckon forth the stuff of Ethics 101. Global tech-giant OmniCorp is hellbent on getting their militant robots into the domestic market but have been blocked on all sides by liberal Senator Hubert Dreyfuss (Zach Grenier) and his long-standing bill that outlaws the use of mechs in the land of the stars and stripes. They would feel nothing if they shot a child, Dreyfuss argues. How can we give unadulterated command to something that wouldn’t even feel an ounce of remorse if they blasted a baby in the face? It’s a half decent point you’re onto there Dreyfuss but one that is shied further and further away from as the revenge narrative is ratcheted up.
With the help of marketing fisher Tom Pope (a bearded but still baby-faced Jay Baruchel), Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) employs Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) to help push Dreyfuss’s bill into fisticuffs with the introduction of a half-man, half-machine hybrid. Business barons as they are, they’ve found the wishy-washy nooks of the law and let exploitation take birth. But after breezing through a list of candidates, Norton doesn’t believe they have anyone fulfilling the mental balance needed for the job. I wonder who it could be? Let fly, the red herring in all its foreshadowing glory.
Enter incorruptible cop Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) who has just caught the scent of a near untraceable top-tier gunrunner, Anton Vallon (Patrick Garrow). Following up on a lead, Murphy and partner Jack Lewis (Michael K. Williams) land themselves in the cacophonous din of a gunfight (and either it was the IMAX screening I attended or the gunfire sound editing has been cranked up to 11 but the blasts were near deafening). With Lewis left hospitalized with a handful of slugs lodged in him, good cop Murphy is all revved up for revenge. But, unbeknownst to him, he’s earned a hefty target on his backs from the watchful eye of the criminal underworld and before he can say “boo”, he’s blown into a limbless coma, becoming a prime candidate for what becomes the RoboCop experiment.
For all the character names scattered through the movie (and this review), screenwriter Joshua Zetumer deserves a hand for actually carving out a foothold for nearly all of them. Abbie Cornish as Murphy/Robocop’s wife is a little uncut but Keaton, Oldman, Williams and the rest of the supporting cast really get some actual characters to dig into. Even the villains of the piece are much more modern baddies, blinded by financial gain but not bogged down with diabolical cackles or announced plans of world domination. They hardly acknowledgement their own villainy, they’re just in it to win it. Unfortunately for them, so is RoboCop.
Each character is firmly engrained in the story and hard to leave out when talking about the piece. It’s a surprisingly ensemble piece for an action film and one that relies just as much on the characterization of the Dr. Frankenstein who created him as it does on the eponymous RoboCop. In such, everyone has their place. Making a world that’s so fleshed out and yet intimate is one of Zetumer’s many skills. Loose ends, on the other hand, are not.
In an age of drone warfare, secretive criminal tribunals and the National Defense Authorization Act (which affords Obama authority to kill a US citizen without due process), Robocop does seem ripe for the reboot. It’s a shame then that we don’t really see him (and by extension filmmaker José Padilha) grapple with the difficulties of dealing with morally gray areas. Rather, we’re given an ethical guide we’re meant to mock in Samuel L. Jackson‘s Pat Novak and a dubious puff of disapprobation in Padilha’s incisive glare.
As far as Robocop the machine-man, more than anything, his existence becomes a pitiable state of affairs; one stripped of choice, mellowed of free will and fine-tuned to acts of force appropriation. Seeing what’s left of the actual Alex Murphy is macabre and visceral (and may turn your popcorn bucket into a barf bag) but watching him drained of his remaining humanity is arguably more lurid.
Gone are the lampooning moments of levity that flowed from the originals, replaced with the likes of Batman-mimicking “Does it come in black?” For those seeking action-packed escapism, look elsewhere as RoboCop is more Frankenstein than Die Hard. Soaked and dripping with questions of determinism, spirituality, executive power, agency and identity that each find a pitfall or reaches the end of a rope, Robocop is a mash of hi-fi philosophy conveniently light on resolution.