“What’s more important than the safety of the American people?” RoboCop (2014)

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In the ongoing march of unnecessary remakes of 1980s films, here comes RoboCop clanking his way through the February movie doldrums, after all the Oscar bait has run its box office course.

And I liked it. Quite a bit. (And not just for all the on-location shots of Downtown Motown, including a ton of exterior shots of GM’s Renaissance Center.)

Maybe I am just tired of films that make artistic statements and am ready for one that is a low-rent summer-esque blockbuster. RoboCop certainly fit the bill.

Gone is the original film’s Swiftian satire of Reagan-era fear of one’s own neighbors. No comic undertones in this somber affair. In its place is a grittier/glossier take on post-9/11 American xenophobia and the supercharge it gives to the military-industrial complex’s ongoing economic prospects.

In fact, the film begins with a very telling sequence wherein robot police forces jackboot their way through some unidentified Middle Eastern country, lining the streets with men, women, and children deemed “nonthreatening” only after an invasive infrared scan (or two).

These scenes are interposed with footage of Samuel L. Jackson as an even cartoonier version of a Rush Limbaugh/Bill O’Reilly television pundit casting his death darts at liberal politicians who won’t allow such android stormtroopers to police American streets. Yes, his character proudly wears a little “Stars and Stripes” pin on his lapel and tosses the word “patriot” around the way some people discuss the weather.

Satirical or not, this film isn’t afraid to telegraph its punches.

Instead of sardonic Peter Weller in the title role, we have a more emo RoboCop (his armor is even all black) in Swedish actor Joel Kinnaman. Yes, RoboCop cries. A lot. Kinnaman does a fine job grounding the wackadoodle proceedings, which involve a decent Detroit cop being blown to smithereens, being reconstructed in droid form as part of a martial law experiment conducted by big bad OmniCorp, and then proceeding to solve his own murder much to the chagrin of, well, everyone.

Unlike Weller, Kinnaman as Alex Murphy consistently and genuinely seems distraught by his unlikely circumstances, and the scenes between his otherwise cardboard wife (Abbie Cornish) and son are effectively poignant, chiefly through his presence.

The rest of the cast is fleshed out (no pun intended) by a great group of ringers (and a surprising number of Oscar nominees): Gary Oldman as the Dr. Frankenstein-mad-genius-with-a-conscience who transforms Murphy from beat cop to Tin Man; Michael Keaton as OmniCorp’s believably “country club casual” money-hungry CEO; Jackie Earle Haley as a junkyard dog lieutenant in Keaton’s army-for-hire; Jennifer Ehle as Keaton’s coolly calculating corporate counsel; Marianne Jean Baptiste as a smoothly corrupt police chief; and Jay Baruchel doing his dorky-James-Franco-wannabe thing as Keaton’s chief marketing nerd.

I don’t know that the world really needed a RoboCop remake but, as an exercise in taking a well-worn narrative and using it to tweak our post-millennial materialism, self-preservation, insecurity, and fear of the unknown, it runs like clockwork.

Accomplished acting, even with 80% of one’s face covered: Dredd 3D

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2012 may be the year superhero movies offered a case study in accomplished acting, even with 80% of one’s face covered. It’s like someone put out a dare, and both Dark Knight Rises’ Tom Hardy as “Bane” and now Dredd 3D’s Karl Urban as “Judge Dredd” said, “I’ll see that bet, and raise you with monosyllabic dialogue and guttural intonations… I will get more across than most of your showiest, most wildly gesticulating, scenery chewing actors out there!”

I may be one of the few viewers who didn’t loathe the first cinematic interpretation of Judge Dredd in the mid-90s with Sylvester Stallone, though I will admit he did nearly ruin the good judge’s catchphrase with his “Yo, Adrian!”-esque take: “I aaaaammm da laaaaawwww.” Happily, I can report Urban, so whimsically fun as Dr. Bones McCoy in the recent Star Trek reboot, not only redeems said line (slyly and in the film’s final act no less) but turns in a great performance, saddled with a helmet that makes Ian McKellan’s “Magneto” headgear look like a Sunday bonnet.

This new iteration, less candy-coated than the first film and working effectively with a mere fraction of that movie’s bloated budget, takes full advantage of the Swiftian, dystopian dark satire of the comic book source material (2000 A.D.). In today’s troubled age  – violent outbursts in the most innocuous of locales (e.g. movie theatres, schools, shopping malls), cartoonishly extreme political infighting, grotesque urban sprawl, pharmaceutical escapism, and a society so desensitized by reality television that common decency is a long-forgotten memory – the original comic series from the 70s/80s is eerily prescient. In Judge Dredd’s world, the justice system is now a twisted reflection of the collapsed mores of society, with police/judge/jury/executioner all wrapped into one entity: a band of jack-booted, black motorcycle-riding “judges” who roam Mega City One (the remnants of a nuclear obliterated America being one large city that runs from the former New York to Boston), futilely trying to prevent an unending tide of violent crime. And this film nails the uncomfortable future shock allegory of today’s ills.

The movie is beautifully filmed in shades of gray, with effective pops of color and slow-mo during the most extreme scenes of man’s cruelty to man. I am not a 3D fan (it mostly just gives me a headache and reminds me of my old View-Master reels), but in this case it works very well, evoking the layered imagery of a comic panel. All the supporting players bring just the right amount of gravitas to their increasingly dark, absurdly surreal surrounding. 300’s Lena Headey is particularly creepy as drug lord villain “Ma-Ma,” and Juno’s Olivia Thirlby is a nice mix of sadness and pluck as Dredd’s rookie sidekick. The movie is no doubt going to be too dark (or too close to home) for most of today’s movie-goers, but its intoxicating mix of social critique, hypnotic visuals, and escapist thrills ensures it a long life as a future cult classic. Catch it soon before it slips away, only to be enjoyed on the small screen.