by Steve Habrat
In 1987, director Paul Verhoeven unveiled RoboCop, a satirical science fiction blockbuster that has been long celebrated by critics and audiences as a classic of the genre. Despite offering gruesome thrills and unrelenting action, this beloved classic has even earned recognition from the prestigious Criterion Collection and was released by the arthouse company on laserdisc and DVD a few years back. It should come as no surprise that a remake of RoboCop was rumored for many years—unsurprisingly, really, considering that Hollywood is running on fumes in the creativity department. After almost ten years of development, America finally has Brazilian director José Padilha’s RoboCop, a buffed and bloodless affair that features a staggering A-list cast. With names like Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Samuel L. Jackson, and Jackie Earle Haley filling up the cast list, you’d think that there must be something solid to this blatantly unnecessary remake of a classic. Truthfully, RoboCop 2014 isn’t nearly as bad as you may have expected it to be. It’s far from empty headed and the veteran performances carry plenty of weight, but the film is so concerned with making an intelligent statement that the film nearly forgets to have any fun or offer any adrenaline-pumping set pieces. It also makes the grave mistake of handing over the title role to Joel Kinnaman, a newcomer that works hard but never fully earns our sympathy or respect.
RoboCop picks up in Detroit, 2029, with police officer Alex Murphy (played by Joel Kinnaman) and his partner, Jack Lewis (played by Michael K. Williams), doing some dangerous undercover work in an attempt to bring down crime boss Antoine Vallon (played by Patrick Garrow). In their investigation, they begin to discover that Vallon may have ties to several officers in the Detroit police department. After a nasty confrontation between the undercover officers and Vallon’s men, Jack is left severely wounded and clinging to life. Alex manages to make it through the confrontation unscathed, but Vallon’s men soon track him down and implant an explosive device inside his car. While enjoying a quiet evening at home with his wife, Clara (played by Abbie Cornish), and his young son, David, the device is triggered, leaving Alex with fourth degree burns covering his body. Meanwhile, in Tehran, the United States is waging war with the help of robotic soldiers and hulking droids created by OmniCorp. On American soil, OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellers (played by Michael Keaton) is pushing to have these robots and droids patrol American streets, but he is met with resistance from Senator Hubert Dreyfuss (played by Zach Grenier), who claims that the robots and droids lack human emotion. Desperate to make his vision a reality, Sellers enlists the help of Dr. Dennett Norton (played by Gary Oldman) to meld man with machine. After a lengthy search for a proper candidate, Sellers and Norton settle on Alex for the human/robot program, and in the process create a revolutionary new figure of justice—RoboCop.
Where most blockbusters today attempt to mask their lack of intelligence with countless CGI battles, gunfights, fistfights, and miles of devastation, RoboCop begins with heady debates about the use of robots and droids in the thick of war. The battle rages on a nightly news program called The Novak Element, hosted by Pat Novak (played by Samuel L. Jackson). In this sequence, we are treated to some tense urban action sprinkled in between Novak’s bug-eyed stare and his questioning of America’s “robophobia.” Points are made on both sides of the issue, bullets fly, bombs explode, and things seem to be getting off to a strong start even before the credits have rolled. Padilha and his crew are letting us know that they are well aware that the original RoboCop was interested in smarts just as much as it was interested in spilling blood, and you have to commend them for acknowledging this. However, as the seconds tick by in RoboCop 2014, it becomes increasingly clear that the filmmakers seem reluctant to have a little fun. There is a brief rush of giddy excitement when Alex steps into a training session in an abandoned warehouse, but the action feels square and the approach is uninspired as Jackie Earle Hayle’s Rick Maddox taunts the stomping RoboAlex by calling him “Tin Man.” I’m sad to report that the action rarely picks up from here, only really cutting loose during the final showdown in the OmniCorp lobby.
While the action may not exactly take your breath away, a good majority of the performances will keep your eyes glued to the screen. Perhaps the most mediocre of the bunch is Kinnaman, who fails do anything interesting with his screen time. He’s the typical macho cop/mushy family man in the early scenes, and when he’s sentenced to his new RoboArmor, he’s only sporadically pathetic as he realizes that he will never have a normal life again. Still, he can droop his mouth into a proper frown as he aims his machine gun and fires at the bad guys, which is always an action-movie plus. The ever-welcome Oldman is the top dog here as Dennett, the doctor tasked with placing the injured cop inside a machine. Oldman earns more sympathy when he is forced to switch off Alex’s emotions than the actual RoboHero does. Keaton nails his role as Sellers, the ruthless OmniCorp CEO who may not be as upstanding as he seems. Jackie Earle Hayley does a fine job as Maddox considering that the screenwriters have handed him the film’s worst dialogue. Strapped inside his exoskeleton, he looks like something out of Elysium, but he still finds a groove as a certified badass. Jackson is his usual shouting self as Pat Novak, the nightly news host who speaks directly to the audience and acts as a pale moderator to all the heated debates. Abbie Cornish rounds out the main cast as Alex’s suffering wife, Clara, who slowly regrets allowing the suits of OmniCorp to slap her husband inside that black armor.
Undoubtedly the most controversial change in RoboCop 2014 is the PG-13 violence that the studio opted for rather than the gruesome R-rated approach Verhoeven took to the original. Throughout it’s nearly two-hour run time, there is barely a speck of blood, which makes it clear that Columbia intends to turn this new RoboCop into a sanitized series that will sell just as many toys as it does tickets. Despite the lack of bloodshed and carnage, Padilha’s RoboCop is still a well-paced story that builds quite nicely. The only time that the film really drops the ball is with Vallon and his villainous shenanigans. He is quickly bumped off and forgotten so that Padilha can make room for bigger and badder tricks. It also wouldn’t have hurt to include villains that are a bit more colorful than what we are left with. Overall, you can’t fault RoboCop 2014 for attempting to be much more than a mind numbing, popcorn-muncher of a film, but this constant strain to be saying something prevents the audience from receiving the action jolt they are craving. Maybe a different lead would have helped, too. Oh well, as far as remakes go, it could have been much, much worse.
Seven Psychopaths (2012)
by Steve Habrat
I wish that Martin McDonagh would direct more movies. We haven’t seen much of the Irish screenwriter and director since his small but darkly hilarious 2008 film In Bruges, the scrappy hit-men-on-holiday thriller that brought out the funnyman in Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson. In Bruges turned out to be one of the strongest films of 2008 but it was sorely overlooked when the “Best of the Year” lists were published. After a lengthy wait, we finally have Seven Psychopaths, the equally hilarious and shockingly gruesome send up of the gangster genre and Hollywood action vehicles. With the tongue and jaw of Quentin Tarantino and enough gore to make any member of the splat pack blush, Seven Psychopaths is a minor effort, one destined for cult popularity and late night viewings with your friends. To be fair, there is nothing wrong with its instant cult status but it certainly makes the film a bit alienating to the casual viewer. While there is plenty to love in Seven Psychopaths, there are a few little annoyances with the script that prevent it from achieving the greatness of In Bruges, but the star power is McDonagh’s greatest strength here and he more than allows Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson, and Tom Waits to unleash their inner freaks.
Seven Psychopaths introduces us to Marty (Played by Farrell), a struggling screenwriter with a massive drinking problem. He spends his days in sunny Los Angeles with his buddy Billy (Played by Rockwell), an unemployed actor who kidnaps dogs with Hans (Played by Walken), a seemingly mild mannered man with a violent past. Hans and Billy then return the stolen pups to their owners and claim the rewards. After Hans and Billy kidnap a Shih Tzu that belongs to unhinged gangster Charlie (Played by Harrelson), Billy, Hans, and Marty go on the run from the ruthless gangster who will do anything to get his dog back. Meanwhile, Marty is scraping for ideas for a screenplay he is writing called “Seven Psychopaths” and seeking out individuals who consider themselves “psychos.” Along the way, he encounters Zachariah Rigby (Played by Waits), who traveled around with his wife killing serial killers and a masked vigilante who targets high-ranking members of the mob. As all of their paths cross, the bullets begin to fly and dead bodies stack up.
While the script is packed with plenty of comedic banter between all these wackos, Seven Psychopath hits a snag in the way it chooses to handle some of the characters. Olga Kurylenko shows up briefly as Charlie’s girlfriend Angela and Abbie Cornish is the in the mix as Marty’s fed up galpal Kaya but neither are given very much to do. While the death of one of these female characters is used to comment on the way that women are handled in action movies (it is hilariously dissected), I would have really loved to see one of them get down and bloody with the boys but that never happens. There is also another main character that I think was grossly mishandled and should have played a bigger part in the film, especially after the taste that we get of him. It is tough to discuss these flaws because Seven Psychopaths is just loaded with twists and turns that add to the fun, especially with its characters. I also think that when the characters step out of the sunny Los Angeles streets, things don’t run as smoothly as McDonagh thinks they do. There is still something to be said about the way that McDonagh spirals towards the ending, teasing us with ideas of a grand gunfight and characters dying in a slow-motion hail of gunfire, all while doing it behind a never-ending sea of hysterical one liners to keep things playful.
Seven Psychopaths is never ashamed to be a bloody character piece, one that has plenty of emotion weight behind each character. Marty wins us over almost instantly as a scribe perpetually recovering from the night before, shaking himself out of a hangover with a freshly cracked beer. He is basically the only (semi) normal one of the bunch and his reactions to the sudden violence thrown into his world are insanely realistic and knee slapping. Rockwell continues to prove why he is a talent to be reckoned with as mile-a-minute Billy, the eager chum who wants so desperately to help with Marty’s new screenplay. McDonagh hands him all the best lines of the film and he’s the one who gets to rant and rave about how he wants their situation to end. Walken is his usual self as Hans, a crafty old bat who just wants to take care of his sick wife. At times, Walken seems to be playing a cartoonish version of himself but he has never been as bad ass as he is at the end of this film (his reaction to someone aiming a gun at him is classic). Harrelson is a welcome presence as lunatic gangster Charlie, who will do ANYTHING to get his beloved dog back. He flits between menacing and hilarious in the blink of an eye, bring that demented gleam in his eye that we saw in Natural Born Killers. Rounding out the main characters in Waits as Zachariah Rigby, who gets probably the most shocking sequence of the entire movie. His character is as inspired as they come and the way that McDonagh weaves history into his character is downright brilliant.
While In Bruges certainly had its fair share of blood, Seven Psychopaths brings the blood, the guts, and splattered brains. There are jolting fits of violence and sudden confrontations that would make Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez as giddy as as schoolgirls. The way that the film introduces us to each “psychopath” is also pretty inspired, some of them emerging from Marty’s own screenplay while others joining the “real world” madness. It may be gratuitous and it may be gonzo but Seven Psychopaths can catch you off guard with its serious moments, a trick that allows the film to linger a little longer than you may anticipate. Be prepared to be knocked down a peg here or there and be even more prepared to actually feel it. Overall, it may get a bit jumbled from time to time and you may need a second viewing just to put it all together (there are a lot of characters and stories here), but Seven Psychopaths is a witty and left-of-center comedic satire that, once again, leaves me wanting more from Mr. McDonagh. I just hope we don’t have to wait another four years for him to grace us with his presence. That is just too long to make us wait!
Sucker Punch (2011)
by Steve Habrat
After all the gun smoke had cleared and the credits crawled across the screen, it became crystal clear to me how Christopher Nolan settled on Zack Snyder for the reboot of Superman: Snyder simply showed him Sucker Punch. There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that Nolan gushed over it either. Sucker Punch is a trippy puzzler that sends you stumbling from the theater to debate what the hell just happened with your friends, which is quite similar to what Nolan did with his towering Inception. But where Inception pulled off it’s elusiveness with refined sophistication, Sucker Punch takes the dirty, dusty road where dragons swoop from above, girls in fishnets wield 50 calibers, WWI zombie German soldiers leap from trenches, and our heroes bop around in a WWII bomber. And that is just naming a few of the oddities that Snyder lobbed into his obvious pet project. I’m sure by this point you’ve seen the other reviews of Sucker Punch and, to use a term from Mr. Obama, the film has taken quite a “shellacking.” Sure it’s big, loud, and completely overblown, but I oddly found myself enjoying the madness. What actually appalls me is that Battle: Los Angeles, a film that makes no attempt to be about anything except blowing everything up, actually received better reviews than this film did! ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!?! Did we see the same movie?
Maybe I was rooting for Snyder to actually pull off the impossible. Everyone under the sun has seen the unruly trailer. Snyder seemed like he wanted to shove every possible genre of film into one film to make one hulking masterpiece. One that encompasses everything from the kung-fu films to epic medieval fantasies. I truly found Sucker Punch to be a noble, and at times, refreshing attempt at it even if it was beginning to show signs of collapsing on itself. The film also has had a slight hypnotic affect over me in the sense that I am confident that there is more to this particular film than first meets the eye. The first time seems to be a shock and awe campaign to pin you to your seat but the more my mind wanders back and evaluates the little touches, the more I’m lured into wanting to uncover more about it.
I won’t dive to deeply into the plot of the film because some of it is up to you to piece together, but the film follows the starry-eyed, pig-tailed Babydoll (played by Emily Browning), who is admitted into a mental institution by her unhinged stepfather after she accidentally shoots her baby sister. It’s here that she falls under the care of the at times menacing and at times motherly but always vampy Dr. Gorski (played by Carla Gugino). Behind the walls of the institition, she embraces her new life in a brothel and learns to dance for the seedy men that come to drool over the young girls. Babydoll soon joins forces with the tough-as-nails leader Sweet Pea (played by Abbie Cornish), Sweet Pea’s gung-ho little sister Rocket (played by Jenna Malone), the uneasy “pilot” Amber (played by Jamie Chung), and the big guns specialist Blondie (played by Vanessa Hudgens). The gang rapidly starts plotting an escape from the institution/brothel and through their wildly untamed imaginations, envision elaborate dream-missions to find the supplies they need to break out of the big house.
While the film marvelously finds a perfect balance between the hectic dream worlds and the rotting walls of the institution, the film tries to cram so much in that points are a little to overpowering. There is an incredibly inspired sequence that takes place on a WWI battle field complete with zombified German soldiers wearing ghastly gasmasks, biplanes falling in flaming ruin from the sky, earth shaking explosions and a lofty android walker with a rabbit face that Amber maneuvers into a outrageously bad ass death machine. It’s a truly breathtaking action sequence that is worth the trip to see the movie alone. Sadly, the film stumbles when it ventures into the realm of medieval fantasy in a war sequence that smashes WWII together with the Lord of the Rings. I give it credit for being atypical but it’s shockingly monotonous and lacking in any sort of looming danger. This leads me to my next compliant, which is the fact that all the girls are magically scrappy superheroes. There is never any concrete justification and we are supposed to just embrace it. One sequence that is especially irritating is when Babydoll confronts three giant samurais. She flips through the air so repeatedly that I almost wanted to shout “ENOUGH ALREADY! WE GET IT!”
Ultimately, Sucker Punch overcomes the obstacles and still manages to be engaging. I still found myself consumed by much of it and the writing, although uneven, is never less than interesting. The dialogue is good but not great and the premise alone never lost me. The performances’ by the young actresses are finely tuned and convincing. I was extremely worried that they would be wooden. The standout is without question the wounded Rocket. She kicks ass while nursing the burden of a broken heart. I actually breathed a huge sigh of relief that the film never descended into a perverse fantasy for Snyder. While the girls are adorned in fishnets and lingerie, the film is surprisingly tame. We never get a glimpse of the burlesque dance sequences and instead are substituted with the dream world. An even bigger relief is that the film counters Snyder’s fixation with masculine heroes. I enjoyed the girl power feel that he explores this time around. It’s more substantial than his homoerotic bloodbath 300. It still comes in third to his colorful Dawn of the Dead remake and spacey adaptation of graphic novel juggernaut Watchmen. On top of it, Snyder further refines his coarse camerawork and his fluid montages of slow motion into real time. It all flows so gorgeously and it’s impossible not to eat it all up.
The aspect that truly wounds Sucker Punch is the ending where, like Watchmen, it crams all of it’s “profound” ideas in a brushed over climax that feels curiously unsatisfying. This is where the film truly flat lines. It piles on nonsensically cryptic monologues on top of some obvious visual symbolism. The film is convinced that it is a fine wine that will be savored as the taste sticks in your mouth. Unfortunately, it’s just a high-end, calorie-loaded beer that is surprisingly tasty in the beginning. A taste that you and your buddies exclaim about for the first few sips but when you reach the bottom of the bottle, you just gulp down the last drops to finish it. It wasn’t as refreshing as the first few half but it wasn’t impossible to polish off. You’ll oddly find yourself wanting to experience it all again to peel back some more layers and it will make for some good conversation in the long run.
Sucker Punch is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.