FRESH POUR: Robocop (2014) / The LEGO Movie (2014)

Fresh Pours are back! Clint takes a look at one or two new releases that come out each week –just a short look at what’s being released in theaters, along with some drinking rules for your own perusal. BEWARE OF POTENTIAL SPOILERS.

dir. Jose Padilha

Remakes are often unfairly derided as being soulless, unimaginative corporate products that have no ‘necessity’ or imagination. Ever since the first promotional stills and trailer for 2014’s Robocop were released, a collective sigh has been heard across the Internet: “They’re making him BLACK?” “It’s PG-13!” “This isn’t real Robocop!” I don’t really blame them, I suppose; Robocop’s promotional materials did leave a bad taste in the mouth, and it’s hard to separate what people know and love from the 1980s Verhoeven original from what people expect in this new one. Color me surprised, however, when I found out that this film was, while not great, actually pretty good. While the execution is sloppy, there are some great ideas here that I’d hate to see go to waste.

Robocop, which is the American debut of Brazilian filmmaker Jose Padilha (known for gritty cop action-dramas like Elite Squad), updates the greed-is-good, Reaganesque world of the original for a slick, stylish and focus-grouped America beset with questions over whether or not to allow OmniCorp’s robot soldiers to be used in America. Alex Murphy (a flat but effective Joel Kinnaman), an undercover cop in near-future Detroit, is nearly killed by a car bomb set by corrupt cops, only to wake up in a robot body designed by benevolent scientist Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) and paid for by OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton). Returning to the job and his family, and acting ostensibly as a PR piece for OmniCorp’s military hardware, Alex must investigate his own murder and decide his loyalties to the company that made him.

Padilha and crew take the correct, and more interesting, route of updating Robocop not by just retelling the same story, but adapting the basic concept and just applying it to different targets of satire. Whereas OCP in the original was a cadre of old white men in power suits, OmniCorp deftly sends up Apple. Sellars is a dead ringer for Steve Jobs’ quirkiness and emphasis on consumer perception, the company focus-groups Robocop looks to get the best reception from the public (“Make him more tactical…let’s go with black”, the lighter molded-plastic look), and Murphy is resurrected in a Chinese facility that evokes Apple’s FoxConn plant. A particularly effective opening scene shows ED-209s and other robot soldiers policing Tehran without remorse or pause, elegantly combining questions of drone warfare and Middle Eastern intervention into a concrete whole. Even Sam Jackson shows up as an O’Reilly-esque pundit who helpfully recaps the plot for us while espousing the virtues of Robocop.

On the other side of the anti-corporate message, however, is a tale of Frankenstein trying to reclaim himself. Robocop doesn’t get a lot of agency in his own story until the end, which is purposeful. In many ways, the real protagonist is Oldman’s scientist character, acting as advocate for the transhumanized Murphy. This just serves to enhance the horror of Murphy’s situation, particularly in one scene where we truly see all that’s left of the original Murphy; it’s a chilling moment that takes an equally disquieting direction to the original, and actually left me squirming in my seat. Kinnaman’s Murphy is allowed more of his humanity post-‘death’ than Peter Weller, and his emotionless Robocop comes much later as the result of corporate tampering with his brain. His family (played by Abbie Cornish and Some Mop-Topped Kid) is the biggest weak spot; as characters, they’re pretty flat, but it’s interesting to see their effects on Murphy post-Robo. He desperately wants to be a part of his family again, but between his new robot digs and his existential horror at the status of his body, it’s not difficult to see why he fights so hard to control what he can (i.e. fighting crime, rebelling against his masters).

The actual Robocop stuff is probably the least interesting part of the film; the film spends a lot of time with Murphy recuperating/training in China. By the time we get back to Detroit, it’s pretty by-the-numbers: Robocop is cold to his family, tracks down some corrupt cops, fights crime, and so on. The action is decent but nothing special, the film even seeming low-key by the end. One wonders if Padilha was fought by the studio to dumb down or rush the ending, as the last act of the film doesn’t quite live up to the potential set up in the rest of the film. A lot of fuss was made of the fact that this is PG-13; however, there are still quite a few moments of gross-out violence, and the sanitized violence seems fitting to the sanitized world OmniCorp is trying to create.

That being said, however, I’m really not inclined to call Robocop a failure. It’s a damn sight smarter than anyone expected it to be, and there’s really some great stuff in here. Some of the shots will blow you away with their clarity of message, and while the political commentary is heavy-handed and unsubtle, that just orients it even further in the tradition of its predecessor. Other elements disappoint, like the perfunctory, mechanical score and the fact that Michael K Williams’ Lewis doesn’t get more to do, but otherwise it’s well worth a look.

Clint’s Verdict: Liked It

Robocop (2014) Drinking Game:
DIRECTIVE 1) Drink for visual/dialogue references to the original Robocop
DIRECTIVE 2) Drink every time someone talks into the camera (e.g. POV screens)
DIRECTIVE 3) Drink any time you see or hear the word “threat”

Finish Your Drink When:
DIRECTIVE 4) Novak (Samuel L. Jackson) drops the actor’s favorite swear word.

Lego MovieThe LEGO Movie
dirs. Phil Lord and Christopher Miller
Warner Bros. Pictures

Speaking of films that inspire nostalgia/were initially derided as being soulless products, The LEGO Movie is turning out to be one of the most successful films of the year so far – and with good reason. It took me a week or two to get around to reviewing this, so this writeup is likely just another voice in the echo chamber, but when they’re right, they’re right: The LEGO Movie is an astoundingly fun film, and already has a guaranteed early spot on my Top Ten list for the year.

In The LEGO Movie, writer/director team Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (the ones responsible for the surprisingly-excellent 21 Jump Street) create a world that is at once just like how we used to play with Legos as a kid, and indicative of the Lego experience as a whole. The world of Lego is one of infinite imagination but limited freedom: Lord Business (Will Ferrell) has shaped the world of Bricksburgh into one of mediocrity, bland pop music that everyone enjoys forever, and ‘instructions’ that enforce conformity and stifle creativity. Enter Emmet (Chris Pratt), a milquetoast-by-definition protagonist who gets wrapped up in the prophecy of the Special, a Master Builder who will stop an ancient weapon known as the Kragle and defeat Lord Business. The whole affair plays smartly on blockbuster movie conventions, deconstructing (no pun intended) so many familiar elements of the modern conception of the hero’s journey: the foreboding prophecy, the kick-ass love interest,  the sage wizard, and more all get their moments of subversion.

The film is extremely chaotic, by design – the hero’s journey tale is compressed, stretched, subverted and switched so many times, it perfectly echoes the way kids and Legos naturally interact. There’s a free-wheeling, anything-goes spirit to the film that perfectly encapsulates a child’s spirit when playing with their toys. (A late-film reveal of the true nature of the Lego world and its origins might even bring a tear to your eye.) It’s also a joy to see so many licensed characters here; as kids, Legos from different sets and franchises always merged when we played with them, so it makes perfect sense when Batman chooses to hitch a ride on the Millennium Falcon with Han, Chewie, Lando and 3PO. The film has a great energy to it, and all of the voice performances are top-notch, particularly Chris Pratt’s gleeful Emmet and Will Arnett’s Batman (who is given a few well-placed jabs at the broodiness of the Nolan Batfilms). Even Morgan Freeman is having a complete blast as the wry wizard Vitrivius, and Liam Neeson’s Good Cop/Bad Cop is a wry send-up of his recent career trajectory as a growly ball-breaker.

While being a feature-length commercial for Legos in and of itself, The LEGO Movie also takes some pretty subversive jabs at its parent company. After all, the basic message of the film is that you shouldn’t follow the instructions; take your Legos and make your own shit with it instead of making whatever Bionicle the box tells you too. The film itself demonstrates this inventiveness through countless fun setpieces, creative jabs at licensed characters (one recurring gag with Green Lantern as Superman’s pathetic hanger-on is delightful), nods to past Legos, and deconstructions of summer movies and the way we engage with them. (Don’t forget the absolutely inspired and chipper score from Mark Mothersbaugh, definitely reaching back to his Devo roots with these sprightly, electronica-supported cues.) The film is as earnest and uncynical as can be, which is extremely, entirely refreshing to watch – sure, the film is selling you a product, but it’s optimistic about what you can do with it.

Clint’s Verdict: Loved It!

The LEGO Movie Drinking Game:
1) Drink whenever you see a new licensed character LEGO
2) Drink every time someone says “special”
3) Drink any time you see large text on the screen (signs, places, passage of time)

Finish Your Drink When:
Emmet (Chris Pratt) says, “You don’t have to be the bad guy.”

Alcohollywood OYIM 2013

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About Clint Worthington

Clint Worthington is a Chicago-based film/TV critic and podcaster. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, you can find his other film work at Consequence of Sound (where he is a Senior Staff Writer), Crooked Marquee, IndieWire and UPROXX. He is also the co-host of Nathan Rabin's Happy Cast.

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