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The Road Not Taken

(Re)Made for Love

Hollywood’s on the rebound for Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s Day is intermittently a big deal to the movie industry. The more aligned February 14 is with a Wednesday or a weekend, the crazier it gets. But for every Nicholas Sparks bull’s-eye, there’s something with Adam Sandler, Hannibal Lecter, or a passel of soon-to-be-dead teens. This year the 14th is a Friday, and that means movies are those partners who show they care by totally going overboard. Not only are there a pair of romances and a sex comedy this week, but 75 percent of the new major-studio releases are based on movies that already exist. You may love love stories. Hollywood loves remakes.

The new RoboCop stars Joel Kinnaman as Alex Murphy, a Detroit detective and family man who’s killed by crooks and revivified by corporate science. Gary Oldman preserves Murphy’s brain, lungs, and long, handsome face and builds them an elaborate armor. A slick defense contractor (Michael Keaton) wants to sell the result — a multibillion-dollar walking tank — to the government. There’s a liberal, moral-minded senator (Zach Grenier) breathing down Keaton’s neck, and Oldman’s scientist suspects he might have a Frankenstein situation on his hands. His creation — RoboCop! — yearns for wife Abbie Cornish and their son while remaining determined to solve his own murder. All this goes on after Iranian insurgents strike back against the U.S. government robot soldiers that roam the streets of Tehran.

A quick Google search would have informed our hero that the same thing happened to another guy named Murphy back in 1987. He was shot dead, reborn, and fought crime, and they called that movie RoboCop, too. It was a lean, mean satire machine that opened 27 years ago in July. The screenwriters, Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner, wrote a black comedy about Orwellian capitalism, and the Dutch director Paul Verhoeven turned it into a strange mockery of Hollywood action priorities. His RoboCop, played by Peter Weller, embodied and rebuked the law-enforcement avengers of the ’70s and the steroidal action figures of the ’80s. Verhoeven gave us a literal killing machine. But his film — with its droll depiction of a complicit media, subplot of beat cops on the verge of a strike, and myriad flavors of corrupt CEO — collapsed the future into the present. In 2014, Verhoeven’s then still feels like now.

This remake is like someone breaking into an ATM. It takes less than 20 seconds to find Verhoeven’s movie, which still feels as if it doesn’t have a pure genre. This new version, directed by José Padilha and written by Joshua Zetumer, gives it one. It’s more of a straight-up action film about a man fighting for his humanity (and against having his dopamine levels manipulated). That’s not nearly as interesting as the anarchic drollery of the original. You miss Verhoeven’s borderline heartlessness and his inability to tell the difference between good acting and bad (Nancy Allen played Murphy’s police partner like an ’80s sitcom kid sister). That sounds like a put-down, but with Verhoeven it just means there’s no artifice to the performances. There’s a rawness to everything, and the rawness feels real.

This new version goes for realness, too. This time Michael K. Williams is Murphy’s partner — he’s the sort of no-frills actor Verhoeven would love. The movie also tries to make a character of Detroit, but that doesn’t go far. Murphy is engineered in a Chinese factory and exported to the erstwhile Motor City. The irony is cruel and cruelly unexamined. But you never resent it as much as you might want to; the new RoboCop is smart in its limited way. Jennifer Ehle plays an icy corporate lawyer, and Jay Baruchel is perfect as Keaton’s sleazy marketing man. Meanwhile, Samuel L. Jackson hosts a hawkish cable-news show in an Al Sharpton perm, and the movie grazes today’s unique ideological scramble of a liberal presidential administration embracing right-leaning security stances.

Happily, Padilha is more than a hack. He doesn’t fear long shots, for one thing. They give RoboCop his due as a physical specimen. In a moment of post-traumatic stress, he breaks out of the lab and on to a vast factory floor packed with Chinese workers in pink lab coats, then into a rice paddy. The camera trails below him, then above. Padilha also gets the movie’s satire of defense capitalism. When insurgent martyrs strike back against whatever it is the film has the U.S. doing in Tehran, the Pentagon cuts the feed to Jackson’s news program. This is a thinking action thriller. You laugh at the baldness of a conspiracy whose ladder spans the top of the government down into the Detroit Police Department.

Padilha is Brazilian, and it’s interesting that both RoboCops have been made by men whose non-Hollywood work focused on their respective countries’ curdled politics. Padilha devised the hostage documentary Bus 174 and two Elite Squad action-thrillers, and they all deftly asserted that systemic government corruption and neglect of the lower classes breed criminality. Padilha’s RoboCop runs on a sentimentality absent from both his other work and Verhoeven’s original. Murphy just wants to get home to his family, and his family needs him to come home to them. But the movie has no idea what to do with the perversity of this new dynamic, which seems ripe for a returning-war-veteran allegory.

But the movie does something Verhoeven couldn’t have in 1987: It loosens up racial and political positions. The liberal anti-drone senator has the humorless doggedness the entertainment industry usually saves for conservatives. And the conservative here is Samuel L. Jackson, who more than meets his contractually obligated use of “motherfucker.” Kinnaman plays pre-RoboCop Murphy in the same black tones he used to play an ex-junkie detective on AMC’s The Killing. When Williams’s character sees Murphy in ebony armor, he says, “Least I know you the right color now.” Which is to say Kinnaman’s RoboCop gives the action franchise something else that’s timely: its own Macklemore.

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I didn’t think of the Endless Love remake as an old Hollywood melodrama. But it is: Social mores are breached, social mores erupt. It’s just never interesting enough to get you thinking about anything. Like the original, this version is based on Scott Spencer’s 1979 novel, which was turned into a notorious 1981 Franco Zeffirelli movie with Brooke Shields and Martin Hewitt as two different kinds of rich kids in love. (“She is 15. He is 17,” read the poster. “The love every parent fears.”) Spencer’s book is a good, overblown adult novel that Zeffirelli and screenwriter Judith Rascoe turned into an extra-strength after-school special about sexual obsession. Charmingly, Zeffirelli didn’t seem to get that he wasn’t doing Verdi or Shakespeare, but he didn’t seem to know he was making a movie, either. His direction was unruly and arbitrary: two hours of unmowed lawn.

But this remake has almost nothing to do with Spencer’s novel. It’s the kind of film you make when you’ve run out of Nicholas Sparks books. It’s set in the South instead of Chicago. The story — in which a hot working-class kid (Alex Pettyfer) fights for a rich, virginal blonde (Gabriella Wilde) — has Sparks flavoring. There are Secrets. When the boy’s thrown in jail, the girl screams at her father, “Get him out! I love him!” The father is played by Bruce Greenwood, who tries to make this all seem emotionally plausible, as is a good actor’s wont. But the movie needs him to swap plain old paternity for villainous tiger-dadding — you know, No boys for you, daughter, just this medical internship. And: Why can’t you be more like my other son? Who’s dead!

Shana Feste is the director. She’s the one who put the “try” in Country Strong — but that movie at least coughed up a few wonders, mostly with the actors. Feste was going for Nashville authenticity there. This time, she appears to be aiming for the top of the box office. All of the book’s bizarre psychological behavior is gone: the come-ons, the arson, the mental illness, the sexual assault, that downbeat ending. The stars are British models doing American accents, and you never believe them. Wilde just spends the movie galloping in and out of rooms. This isn’t acting so much as steeplechase.

The new movie throws in one friend (Dayo Okeniyi) for comic relief and one (Emma Rigby) for sexual comedy. The latter is a jealous ex — and brunette — who at some point finds herself on the edge of a bed with her chest and lips puffed out and stomach sucked in, while, in the right of the frame, Pettyfer stands in the bathroom staring forlornly into a mirror. That’s not a movie scene. It’s a Guess Jeans ad. Zeffirelli gave his version heat that you almost never see in movies with young actors now. When Hewitt kissed Shields, you were amazed there was anything left of her face. He was hungry for love. Too many actors in the remake just look hungry.

♦♦♦

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I’m no fan of turning one book into 16 movies. But on the way out of Winter’s Tale the other night, I rode the escalator with a woman who said it should have been a series. I didn’t read the Mark Helprin novel the movie’s based on, but I did just lift up a hardback copy and nearly threw out my back. It’s 672 pages, which is to say the woman, who loved the book and disliked the movie, had a point. Still, I don’t know that six more hours of Colin Farrell riding a white horse with aurora borealis wings would help.

This is a time-travel love fantasy featuring a consumptive English virgin (Jessica Brown Findlay), an Irish burglar (Farrell), his equine spirit animal, and a demon gangster (Russell Crowe). There are also an American publishing baron (William Hurt), a dour New York food reporter (Jennifer Connelly), a totally different dying girl (Ripley Sobo), a high-powered newspaper scion (Eva Marie Saint), and two appearances by Lucifer, who’s played, wearing a blazer, T-shirt, and vest, by a Very Famous Movie Star in a not-so-secret cameo. I won’t detail how these people connect to each other, because should you wind up at this mess you’ll need a reason to laugh.

The director and writer is the veteran Hollywood screenwriter and producer Akiva Goldsman, who’s done it all — The Client, Batman & Robin, Cinderella Man, A Beautiful Mind, The Da Vinci Code, I Am Legend. This is his debut as a director, and I wish there were more to say about it than, “Come again now?” He can’t make you care about one world, let alone the cosmic collision of two. Whenever someone asks why something happens to be, the response tends to be something like, “Those are the rules.” They’re just never made clear to us, so it seems as though Goldsman is simply making things up as he goes.

We never come to understand the magic that keeps Farrell looking like a member of My Chemical Romance for 10 decades. We never know why consumption makes women sexy. Most of the actors here have previously worked with Goldsman, who, it seems, has called in several favors. (Would Connelly have her Oscar without him?) They all give their roles lots of tears and passion — even the Very Famous Movie Star. But it’s a waste. If you’ve got these actors in your movie, why are you bothering with magic at all? The magic should be them.

♦♦♦

About-Last-Night-HP

The best of this week’s remakes and the best of this week’s romances is also the least likely combination of the two. About Last Night is just like the 1986 movie of the same name (but without any ellipses). Now Michael Ealy, Joy Bryant, Kevin Hart, and Regina Hall are in roles that Rob Lowe, Demi Moore, James Belushi, and Elizabeth Perkins were all miscast in. Both movies are based on David Mamet’s 1974 play Sexual Perversity in Chicago. The play now feels like Mamet for beginners, but the foundation is still solid enough for a sex comedy.

In the new movie, directed by Steve Pink and written by Leslye Headland, who wrote and directed Bachelorette, two coworkers (Ealy and Hart) have drinks with two roommates (Bryant and Hall). Hart and Hall have slept together once before. The movie delivers a play-by-play of the sex, and just listening to Hall exclaim to Bryant that Hart’s pecker is the “John Legend of penises” is like going to sitcom-banter heaven. The whole movie is like that: loud, fast, quippy, made-for-TV. When Hart and Hall get fantastically drunk before going to have more sex in a bathroom, Ealy walks Bryant home and a more traditional relationship starts. Hart and Hall fight and fuck and then fight some more, while Ealy and Bryant, who are both elegant, natural actors, drift into domestic malaise.

None of what follows is profound. But the movie’s got energy and lewdness and warmth.1 Headland’s script expands the parameters of Mamet’s play to make the women as funny as the men in the play think they are. This film has the looseness of a movie made of outtakes — but they mostly work, and they mostly involve Hall and Hart. They’re the undercard that takes over the movie.

Hall was Anna Faris’s copilot in out-on-a-limb nonsense at the start of the Scary Movie series. And I always worry that the studios forget what she can do with a so-so comedy — like knock Hart to the floor with laughter, as she does toward the end of this movie. She’s great here, using her body and her voice to bring something newly human out of her costar. So much of Hart’s shtick asks us to believe in his sexiness before he pulls a rug out from under it. What he’s lacked are partners as credible as Ealy and Hall. He had his moments with Alan Arkin in Grudge Match, but Arkin was’t sparring with him — he was flyswatting. Ride Along has made him a box office star, but About Last Night makes a case for Hart as the kind of romantic comedian who’ll stop humping your leg long enough to ask how your day was.

Filed Under: Movies, robocop, endless love, winters tale, About Last Night, Kevin Hart

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Wesley Morris is a staff writer for Grantland. He won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for criticism for his work at the Boston Globe.

Archive @ Wesley_Morris