As expected, the 2014 model is a much more dour and serious-minded Robocop than its snarky, lurid predecessor. That would be its most notable feature, and a breath of fresh air, except that every other genre film of the past ten years or so has taken this once pristine “serious” path and rendered it a well-worn tourist trap. This film is likely hoping to be bequeathed with the label “thinking man’s Robocop”, and it succeeds at this, to be honest. However, the effect bears mixed results, keeping the film at once too mired in glum moroseness to work as a giddy delight and too thoughtful to ever really be notably bad. The thematic core of the film, wholly invested in that pesky age old “what makes humanity” issue along with something more politically modern in the form of drones, is sufficiently developed if primarily functional and never insightful. But it’s there, and it almost gives the film a certain measure of respect and thoughtfulness. Robocop almost manages to avoid the tension of having its blood-and-guts violence and chastising others for the same (certainly a worthwhile note in relation to director Jose Padilha’s two previous Elite Squad films all torn between neo-fascist rage and neo-liberal excusatory middlebrow-ness). Almost, and in today’s age almost is almost enough.
What really “saves” the film, insofar as “saved” is a useful term for a competent ’80s action movie remake, is director Joe Padilha. The PG-13 editing curbs him somewhat, but he manages to wring just about as much whirlwind chaos out of the action as possible; most of the sequences are cohesive and filmed in a series of gratifying long takes that set up the action and allow it to unfold before us absent the save-face of the twitchy editing dance most modern action films engage in. One action scene is shot-through and ravaged with the bullet wounds of this form of chaotic editing, but Padilha wisely realizes this and turns it into an almost-abstracted sequence entirely about the editing matched to a fury of bullet-fire distanced from any real-world cause, and all washed over in Padilha’s semi-abstract color backgrounds that sap nuance from the screen in favor of a maddening clinical excitement that works precisely because no one can follow it.
That is the film though: ecstatic, dancing moments that really do work caught in the headlights of a mostly tepid piece and unsure of how to break out. It’s fun, except when it’s far too self-serious to have any interest in being fun. It is in this latter state for a good portion of its running length, without a script or filmmaking to back it up (Padilha’s vision is far too …slick is the word, lacking anything resembling the grimy, glorified B-movie grit of the original to back it up). The original film brought a certain snarky energy to its world by visually contrasting the sleek excess of corporate America and the apocalyptic, dirge horror other-world of life on the impoverished streets, all built up on little lived-in details of human environment. Here, the grime has been covered-up by a veneer of respectability, when letting it all out would have served the film better. It’s middling as a bit of fluff, a serious social commentary, and as a ravaged, desperate work of filmmaking invention that really gets us into the muck and the dirt of another world – it wants to be all three, and it mostly doesn’t work as any. That confusion more than anything keeps the movie from soaring. At the least, though, while Robocop looked almost unspeakably sickly in preview, the finished product is not an unalloyed form of badness. It’s rather just a mediocre core held up by mediocre airs, and in some sense, that’s an altogether more depressing fact – they sure don’t make bad movies like they used to.
Predators posits itself as some sort of wanky “exploration of the rich Predator fiction” or some such marketing twaddle. And in a weird way, if you consider the fiction of that notable 1987 Ahnuld vehicle to be “big ol’ dudes with bi ol’ guns fight a creepy big ol’ alien, also with big ol’ guns but of a decidedly more sci-fi variety”, and if you consider this to be “rich” insofar as it is fiction, then such a marketing campaign would be totally on the money. For Predators is rather unambiguously and without question a Predator sequel, looking to correct the wounds the franchise has received over the years by adhering to the safest possible formula: re-make Predator. Except this time there’s more than one Predator. And a slightly more ethnic cast, although even then not really. You know, the big differences.
The customary plot dispensary unit: a bunch of mercenaries and soldiers find themselves dropped onto an alien planet, and after exploring a bit they learn they are not the only ones there. Ten points for anyone who can guess their hosts, and the main course. Thankfully, at least, the film is well-paced up until the perplexingly obvious conclusion, where things take a turn for the lamest thanks to everyone’s absolute favorite unnecessary narrative trope of the 21st century: adding in unnecessary and undeveloped human villains to works that have no need whatsoever for human villains at the last minute. As the film simultaneously speeds up and becomes all momentum, it loses a portion of its slick, sleek, flesh-and-bone specificity for a human threat that is decidedly less imposing and less mythic. And Predator has always been about its mythic treatment of the very sweaty, lived-in, fleshy chaos of the oppressive jungle and what nightmares are shrouded within.
At least it’s decent enough at being Predator, even if the original was actually quite good at it already. The good news is two-fold: the first half, where things are spooky and given to horror-imagery, is indeed spooky and mildly creepy, and the second half, where things get quite a bit more hectic and scrappy, is indeed hectic and scrappy. Nimrod Antal, who has experience with both slow-burning atmosphere and lean-and-mean suspense that goes right for the gut, is too fine a craftsman to ever let things go off the rails, even if there are more worthwhile products out there for him (though, he certainly did more with this ’80s action-fest than did also talented filmmaker and consummate remake artist Marcus Nispel for the remake of Conan the Barbarian one year later) . His eye for a terse edit here or a longer-than-average shot there does quite a bit for Predators and its ability to entertain on its own level. There’s also at least one shockingly poetic scene that functions less as action than bodies in motion, and centers on the anxious swaying of the nicely-contrasted green of the overflowing grass of the planet.
Antal does slip up, however, in a mid-film bit seemingly spliced in from another movie where an absolutely bizarre, wide-eyed, lunatic-fringe Laurence Fishburne shows up and does his best vaguely-alive Marlon Brando trying-to-hide-all-the-pie-he’s-been-stocking-up-on imitation. That being said, at least this sequence has a certain off-the-wall fascination to it for how wonderfully it exists not as Predators but as Heart of Darkness, and how energetic and unapologetic it is in believing this sort of “man’s inner beast” theme really flourishes in a movie that has Danny Trejo playing a pastiche of himself. Still, it’s an amusing flaw more than a crippling one, and certainly nothing to keep the film from being, at worst, a competent Predator rip-off with a kind-of-amazing cast-against-type Adrien Brody as a no-nonsense lead. If that was this film’s goal, it succeeded. But it’s a Pyrrhic victory, for Predator exists to begin with.