Robocop by José Padilha

Robocop by  José Padilha

Set in 2028 Detroit, Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) – a loving husband, father and good cop – is critically injured in the line of duty, the multinational conglomerate OmniCorp seizes this opportunity to make him into a half-man, half-machine police officer.

With its combination of B-movie kitsch, sci-fi action and satirical social commentary, Paul Verhoeven’s original Robocop was a product of its time. Having thoroughly enjoyed it as a child on VHS, I owned a Robocop action figure, played the Robocop video game on Gameboy and even faithfully watched the sequels without any sense that the stories started to deteriorate in quality. Initially the first film worked as a highly violent action film and it was only later as an adult that I caught on with the satirical bits.

Hearing about this upcoming Robocop remake, I wondered if those satirical elements would work again. Yes, technology today has now caught up with what was shown in the original film, but that doesn’t necessary mean there is anything substantial to be attacked satirically. I assumed it was going to be more focused on the action sci-fi elements.

But my prediction was wrong. The new Robocop gets right what I thought it would have fumbled, the social satire, and drops the ball exactly where I never would have expected, namely the Robocop story itself. The satire elements with Samuel L. Jackson doing a parody of Fox News, makes up for the most entertaining segments but it is the only condensed source of satire. The satire works and is surprisingly relevant, but it is not as naturally incorporated into its fictional world as the original. Every segment with Jackson’s TV host feels like a break from the main narrative.

Joel Kinnaman does a decent job with the material he is given, but the story is essentially not focused on Alex Murphy. The remake version of Murphy and he is not portrayed as a warm friendly guy like Peter Weller, or at least the story is not showing it. It is a long wait before Robocop officially becomes Robocop and does the Robocop thing, as we are shown the entire production process of his creation. It is here in the second act where the story starts to sag. It is also where the action scenes begin, which are decently designed and choreographed, but ultimately are dull because there is no gravitas behind them.

Abbie Cornish plays Murphy’s wife seriously, replacing Nancy Allen’s Officer Anne Lewis as Murphy’s anchor to his own humanity, is unfortunately wasted from having no character progression or payoff.

The R-rated violence was an essential element to the original Robocop, establishing great nasty villains and touched upon themes of dehumanization and human conscience versus the judgment of a machine. Whether the ultra violence is included in this telling is irrelevant. There are many things movies can get away with a PG-13 rating now than in the eighties. I do not need this remake to be ultra violent. What I want is the scenes to be emotionally gripping, and this did not achieve that.

The main debate between Gary Oldman’s kindhearted robotics scientist and Michael Keaton’s slimy Omnicorp CEO, representing the individual versus the corporation, is the heart of the film. And it is quite ironic actually. Even down to making Robocop black and riding a black motorcycle, visually reminiscent of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (frankly, the original suit still looks cooler), Robocop plays like a film that has been workshopped by a committee of producers. Robocop, or as he referred to in the film, “the Tinman”, just needed more heart.

Captain Phillips by Paul Greengrass

Captain Phillips by Paul Greengrass

 

Captain Phillips tells the real life story of merchant mariner Captain Richard Phillips, who was taken hostage by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean during the Maersk Alabama hijacking in 2009 led by Abduwali Muse.

The most noteworthy aspect of Paul Greengrass’ canon is his ability to create immediacy, which is the key ingredient in Captain Phillips. The surface explanation behind Greengrass’s crackling visual style is simply that he shoots handheld. The truth is much more complicated than that. What’s behind Greengrass’ method is not merely the shaky cam, but his ability to create reality and punctuate immediate tension in his dramatic filmmaking. He understands that people receive information in fragments all the time and has found a way to incorporate that human reflex into a cinematic experience. So even with the fast cuts and shaky photography, the audience is able to follow what’s going on. It is emotionally connective.

The set pieces in the first half of the film are visceral and tense. They feel like they’re happening right before us and we are immersed into the crew’s helpless dilemma. There’s a significant genre shift in the second act, as the film becomes a rescue mission procedural. It goes on a bit long by the end. The first half is definitely more fun than the second half, if only because the crew members become less active in the latter portions.

Tom Hanks plunges into the title role in a way I haven’t seen in years. The trademark Tom Hanks movie star charm is removed and what remains is Hank’s everyman quality. Captain Richard Phillips comparatively is a relatively colder character compared to Hank’s past roles, which frees him up to embody the role. The last few moments of Hanks’ Captain Phillips in shock dealing with the aftermath is breathtaking. It’s a great human moment, though overall the entire performance is probably not Oscar worthy.

The Somali pirates are well casted. It’s baffling how the filmmakers found these actors in a cating session in North Carolina. They rise above their skinny appearances and rough-hewn looks and each individually play dimensional characters. Greengrass builds an interesting group dynamic between them and gives them a backstory that suggests that they are not intentionally evil people.

Something noteworthy is how Greengrass depicts the military in a cold neutral fashion that doesn’t take political sides. They aren’t glorified like they are in Michael Bay films. The military here is functional and follows procedures to get the job done. There’s a lot of room for audiences to bring in their own views about the response time of the coast guard, the military’s handling of the rescue or the harsh circumstances of the Somali pirates. Although interested in world issues in a journalistic fashion, Greengrass isn’t overbearingly preachy in any sense. His focus is the drama and fully delivers on that.

Retrospective Review: Double Team by Tsui Hark

Double Team by Tsui Hark

There comes a time for every filmgoer when you like a bad movie that nobody likes. You can’t really pinpoint why you like them and it’s a bit embarrassing. Nobody really cares why you liked it because nobody wants to talk about a bad movie. You cannot exactly defend the movie because you see why it’s bad but you feel obligated to point out what’s fun about it. I’ve been wanting to write about films that aren’t new releases. This seems like a good opportunity to write about a film that I enjoy and really want to have a discussion about. So here are my thoughts on the 1997 Tsui Hark action film film Double Team

Let me set it up the historical context. It was 1997. There was a rising trend of Hong Kong action cinema in the West that came in the form of VHS, thanks to the long gone Blockbuster video store. A mutual interest begun to develop; Hollywood producers wanted to inject a new style into American action movies and Hong Kong directors were curious and excited about working with Hollywood resources. John Woo was the first Hong Kong director to be hired for a Hollywood project, and later Ringo Lam and Tsui Hark followed. Coincidentally, all three worked with Jean Claude Van Damme in their Hollywood debuts. This trend eventually died when the Hong Kong directors weren’t that curious anymore and felt that they were being treated to the equivalent of low-cost B-movie directors and the Hollywood resources did not seem worth it by comparison.

John Woo was the only director to rise up the ranks working with other A-listers. Tsui Hark eventually returned to working on Hong Kong productions and Ringo Lam collaborated with Van Damme on a few more straight-to-video productions before retiring from directing.

Tsui Hark has always been a hit-and-miss director for me. He always wants to do too much and ends up overstuffing his films at the expense of the primary idea he started with. But here, perhaps because it was hi American debut, that problem is not here. Working with an American studio and an English language script forced Tsui Hark to reign himself in.

So the setup… Counter-terrorist agent Jack Quinn misses his target, Stavros, on his final mission. He is sent to the Colony, an organization for presumed-dead assassins. He breaks free and seeks aid from Yaz, a weapons dealer for his final battle with Stavros.

Just a few small thoughts to get out of the way. The film is shot like a cartoon with its pastel-like color palette. The art direction is noteworthy as well, it gives a futuristic sense to everything here without being too far into the future or going too over-the-top. It looks like a future that can exist one day.

The idea of the Colony, a secret organization that helps police the world behind-the-scenes via surveillance and advice, is a pretty fun quasi-Utopian concept (the members of the organization live in a sea view resort but are not allowed to leave the place ever) and it is where the film picks up in its second act. The sequences where Van Damme rebuilds himself in a training montage and his escape from the Colony were both interesting and fun visual set pieces. They keep the movie interesting without relying on acting or fight choreography and are specifically designed around things Van Damme can do. Where John Woo dressed Van Damme with gunplay and Ringo Lam with drama, Tsui Hark dressed him up with visual crazy concepts and just let him shine throwing his signature kicks. Tsui Hark recognized that acting was not Van Damme’s forte (at least not until 2008’s JCVD) and decided to let him be the straight man and created chaos around him for contrast. This brings us to the casting of Dennis Rodman…

Dennis Rodman is funny in an absolute hammy way as Yaz the arms dealer. He is so blatantly obnoxious having so much fun playing himself and making basketball puns I can’t help it but laugh along with it. I’m not saying Rodman should be in every movie but he’s likable here. There’s an appeal in movies where the audience witnesses two characters that would never meet under normal circumstances. Van Damme and Rodman make such an odd pairing that it’s just interesting to watch. Heck, seeing Dennis Rodman fist bump a computer-hacking monk is mind bogglingly entertaining.

From a fight choreography standpoint, having to showcase Van Damme’s roundhouse kicks sacrifices a lot of smaller beats within a fight. Van Damme’s roundhouse kicks are beautiful but cinematically speaking, they look slow because of the 360° windup. It’s a powerful kick but also very one-note and requires a certain amount of distance, which means there is not a lot room for upper body parrying. You’ll notice Van Damme never does too much with his hands in his films but rather holding back so he can throw a kick. The roundhouse kick is also a definitive finisher; nobody who receives a kick like that can continue that particular round.

Double Team showcases Van Damme’s kicking ability by cinematically creating a sense of speed and power. Peter Pau, the cinematographer for Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, and Sammo Hung, the action choreographer, both solve that problem by injecting a crackling frenetic energy into the action scenes that makes the audience flinch and jump as if they were in the fight.

As an example, I’m going to describe an action sequence in the film:

Van Damme kicks a henchman, who is firing at him with a machine-gun-in-a-suitcase, through a hotel room door. The henchman falls into the hotel room and is kicked back into the opposite direction by another Chinese henchman. The henchman flies toward Van Damme like a sad ping pong ball. Van Damme roundhouse kicks him off to the side. He drags along the floor, barely alive, almost smashing his head to the wall. The camera then swish-pans to a white marble statue of a thinking man and lingers there for 2 seconds. Van Damme then fights the Chinese henchman (played by Hung Yan Yan, Club Foot from the Once Upon a Time in China series) in the living room, who then crazily takes off his shoes, revealing a switchblade held between his toes and proceeds to cut Van Damme with a series of kicks.

The short ping pong game between Hung Yan Yan and Van Damme speeds up the entire feeling of the fight because we’re only seeing Van Damme for half the time. The focus is brilliantly on the poor henchman who is being knocked back and forth. By the time we cut back to Van Damme, he’s already winding up to kick him to the side.

So how do they maintain the speed of the scene for the next part? Admittedly, Van Damme is passively dodging Hung’s kicks before retaliating but the idea of a henchman who is using a knife clenched between his toes to cut the hero is so insane that we’re just completely distracted. Yes, it’s a game of shifting the audience’s focus. Plus, Hung Yan Yan is a fantastic kicker.

Lastly, why that swish-pan to the statue? It’s such a tiny odd detail but it adds a lot to that moment. I always find myself laughing at that moment. Why? 1) It’s a moment of relief. It’s a short recess for the audience to rest their eyes. 2) We see that the henchman wishing he were dead. 3) Marble statues are beautiful. It’s an odd hilarious short tonal shift.

Here’s a clip of that action sequence here:

A lot of action gets better and better as the films goes on with shots like this. The end sequence with Mickey Rourke at the Coliseum made for a nice finale. They share a good fight. Even though it doesn’t seem well-planned on the villain’s part to place a whole field of marked mines and fistfight over it with a live tiger roaming around.

As for Mickey Rourke, he’s a decent villain but I don’t know why he had to buff up like that. It just makes him move more sluggishly. Perhaps that’s the filmmakers were busy thinking how to make Van Damme look good, they forgot about Mickey Rourke. It’s a shame because there’s nothing that exhibits his boxing training here. It’s still a great finale sequence nonetheless. The final explosion builds to a hilarious ending involving a hallway full of Coca Cola vending machines and the end credits end on a techno song featuring Dennis Rodman on vocals.

There is a lot of craft in this movie, but it’s buried under its blatant obnoxious surface because it’s so insane. The insanity is what’s mesmerizingly fun about it. And maybe that’s why audiences failed to connect with Double Team when it was released. I genuinely like this movie a lot.

With that all said, I will officially say it publicly. 3, 2, 1… I liked Double Team!

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21 Jump Street by Phil Lord and Chris Miller

21 Jump Street by Phil Lord and Chris Miller

A pair of underachieving cops are sent back to a local high school to blend in and bring down a synthetic drug ring.

Confession: I have a very big soft spot for buddy cop movies and have seen way too many that is considered healthy for a normal bloke by civilized society. I like the setups, the witty banter, the themes of overcoming differences and looking inside the friendships and brotherhood between men. Some noteworthy examples of mine are The Hard Way, The Last Boyscout, Curry and Pepper (with Stephen Chow and Jacky Cheung), the Lethal Weapon series, Tsui Hark’s Double Team (no cops but it technically counts),  Die Hard with a Vengeance, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang… the list goes on. Even though it was probably for the better how things turned out, I was really rooting for Shane Black’s Lethal Weapon 5 script to be filmed. Yes, see what I mean?

Now with my bias established, on with the review…

First off,  I’m unfamiliar with the original show, all I know is how much Johnny Depp hated being on the show but it was where he did his 10,000 hours of honing his craft. The idea of cops going undercover as students seems like such a far-fetched and out-dated idea that it would only seem to work as a comedy. So the question is… does it work?

Suffice to say, it really does. I laughed a lot more than I expected with 21 Jump Street. In many ways this is what Cop Out failed to do. 21 Jump Street does do  the genre convention gags and references movies but unlike Cop Out does not focus the entire movie on them. The convention gags (I am not going to spoil any of them here.) are handled well with balance. It never goes overboard with its meta sensibilities and still manages to deliver surprises.

Jenko (played by Channing Tatum) and Schmidt (played by Jonah Hill) are two believably stupid characters. Stupid characters are a tricky act to balance writing wise so it was impressive to me how many gags they were able to get out of these two characters while keeping their stupidity consistent. Jenko and Schmidt start off as classmates, one is a jock and the other is a geek who both end up befriending each other in police school when they need each other’s strengths. That bromance story is something that I never really get tired of. Stupid characters are a tricky act to balance writing wise so it was impressive to me how many gags they were able to get out of these two characters while keeping their stupidity consistent. There is a decently written plot and it provides some nice twists and turns that genuinely surprised me. I’m going to spend the rest of the review mainly talking about the comedy writing

The time change between the present and the 1990’s is also addressed and 21 Jump Street does it in an interesting way: it addresses the idea of popularity and how it has changed since the 90s. Nerds (specifically hipsters) have become cool and jocks are out. It becomes the best gag in the entire movie and is the source of many of the best jokes. When the reversal of popularity dawns on Channing Tatum’s Jenko, he’s suddenly become the social outcast.

This is proof that you should never ever write anybody off because chances are they will find their niche and surprise you. This is the Channing Tatum’s greatest role yet and probably the best thing I have ever seen him in since Michael Mann’s Public Enemies. Tatum is doing a parody of himself and plays it absolutely straight to a cheeky level. He’s the good looking straight man hero, he knows it and the film knows it. As he gets more mad at being ostracized and left out by his nerd friend Schmidt, we laugh harder at him struggling and attempting to process that anger. A funny noteworthy scene is where Jenko enters a room and starts beating Schmidt with stuffed toys and humping him as he is on the phone with the love interest Molly (played by Brie Larson). There’s no dialogue, it seems like a friend messing with another friend but we get totally why Jenko is beating him. The fact that Schmidt is unaware makes it totally funny. 

There’s a trend of lazy writing going in comedies these days with the Judd Apatow movie trend, where he turns on the the camera and lets his actors improvise too often. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t but overall he relies on it too much. I’ve read a draft of the Funny People screenplay and it was clear that they just wrote down the gist of the scenes and improvised their way through shooting. I bring this up because it came very apparent to me that 21 Jump Street seemed it was really written by writers who stayed up late at night on expressos chiseling the right zingers.

The issue with improvised lines is that they draw a lot of attention to themselves because often the audience instinctually feels that the camera is lingering for something that’s not moving the story forward. Many of the comedic zingers in 21 Jump Street were throwaway lines and there is something very artful about them. Jokes come and just past by. You have to catch them or many of them will zip by. It was a more engaging experience that way and I found myself finding new funny lines on a second viewing.

I laughed throughout the entire movie (last movie where this happened for me was 2010’s Morning Glory) and still am currently quoting lines with friends. It was equally enjoyable on a second viewing and I actually noticed new things that made me laugh. I would recommend this to anybody but especially for anybody is a fan of the buddy copy genre.

Please sign me up for the sequel!