What if superheroes were real, not some four-color pulp fantasy or Spandex-and-mask-clad movie daredevil, but a part of the fabric of the world? That’s the core of Unbreakable, a potentially interesting idea deflated by the absurd proclamations of an arch screenplay and smothered under the ponderous gravity of M. Night Shyamalan’s dreary direction.
His much anticipated follow-up to The Sixth Sense draws heavily from that hit; the somber colors and hushed soundtrack create a similar mood of unease and otherworldliness, and Bruce Willis again plays a man disconnected from his life who must discover the secret that leaves him “unfulfilled” with the help of a young boy, in this case his son.
In this remake, Richard Roundtree, the original John Shaft, graciously passes the torch to Samuel L. Jackson. The new film’s director, John Singleton, gives Roundtree some major respect, including a scene where Roundtree exits a Harlem bar with two foxy ladies on his arms. Right on: after all these years, still a sex machine to the chicks. (That’s Gordon Parks, the distinguished American artist and director of the first Shaft, in a cameo at the same bar.)
Saluting a megalithic juggernaut for taking risks is a bit of a mug’s game, but the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been in a winningly funky mood lately, alternating the large-scale Sturm and Drang of the Avengers series with lighter, more idiosyncratic fare. (Yes, I realize that something like Thor: Ragnarok is light years away from being an indie film, but work with me here.) Captain Marvel, the long-overdue solo launch for the comic company’s most powerful female character, unfortunately can’t quite keep the left-field streak going, settling for a pretty familiar origin story delivery mode. While the pre-Iron Man timeframe contributes some novelty—to say nothing of some stellar soundtrack needle-drops—it often feels like a throwback in less engaging ways, as well. Still, even when mired in generic comic movie trappings, the exceedingly game Brie Larson and her ace supporting cast keep things buzzing.
RoboCop (Fox, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD, On Demand) – We gripe about remakes all the time, but when you approach something with the status of the original 1987 RoboCop, Paul Verhoeven’s perversely violent, savagely smart, and wickedly funny science fiction action blast laced with political and social satire, it gets personal for a lot of folks. And for good reason. Twenty five years later, it seems more prescient than ever, which puts the onus on the new film to justify itself: just what does it have to say about a world where unmanned military drones are being drafted into stateside police work?
Brazilian director José Padilha, who delivered both gritty, high-tension action and a savvy social drama in Elite Squad, takes on this remake, and Swedish-born / Texas-tutored Joel Kinnaman is Detroit cop and family man Alex Murphy, rebuilt with military robotics as an urban assault weapon after he’s mortally wounded in an ambush.
This is certainly much slicker than the original, with military robots that look like the Cylons of the “Battlestar Galactica” reboot and mayhem galore, but it’s also much tamer in terms of both violence and satire. Where the original found an insidious handshake between corporate profits and planned obsolescence and design flaws designed to keep contracts full and a cut of the drug and flesh trade around construction projects, this is just about greed on small and large scales, with OmniCorp, the insidious contractor hoping to sell the dubious American public on a mechanical police force, as the big-time crooks. Michael Keaton is despicably good as the instinctively disingenuous CEO and Gary Oldman, Abbie Cornish, and Samuel L. Jackson co-star.
The battle between the human spirit and an operating system offering “the illusion of free will,” a metaphor rife with possibility but lacking conviction, for a film that turns on the struggle between man and machine, this film has less personality than Verhoeven’s. The film ultimately favors soggy sentiment over the cleverness of the original: emotion overrides the system here, rather than taking on the fatal logic of the system itself in the darkly witty twist of the original. The human factor is the wild card. I just wish it was actually more wild and less predictable.
One question that really bothers me in all these future films: how have they managed to create entirely self-contained robot soldiers yet never found a way to make silent servo motors? Every movement comes with the whir and buzz of working parts just to remind us that it’s not just a suit, it’s technology, baby!
The Blu-ray offers the three-part featurette ” Robocop: Engineered for the 21st Century,” an OmniCorp product announcement and deleted scenes, plus a bonus DVD and UltraViolet Digital HD copy. No supplements on the DVD.
The recent spate of superhero movies all share the same peculiar dynamic. After being dropped from buildings, incinerated, and slammed with high-speed projectiles, their characters invariably end their epic battles with a definitive . . . fistfight. You can’t kill them with incredible punishment, but a bout of pugilism is supposed to settle things. In the end, of course, a black hole or something opens up and withers the villain’s magic skill set. But it says something about these oversized productions that they need to bring everything down to hand-to-hand basics—as though somebody realized how dull a movie can get when the antagonists can’t actually be hurt.
The same outline prevails in the second top-lining film for its old-fashioned superhero. And the first thing to be said about this one is that, unlike 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger, which existed purely to set up Marvel’s 2012 ensemble summit meeting The Avengers, Winter Soldier is actually a movie: It has a story, a subtext, and a few fun pulp surprises along the way.
Like most casualties of Noirland, Foley (Samuel L. Jackson) is pretty much DOA from the get-go. Haunted by the moment he put a bullet into his grifter partner’s head, he gets out of jail after a 25-year stretch to find his world mostly emptied of old friends, lovers, fellow thieves. Foley walks heavy, age and regret weighing down his scruffily bearded face. He dreams of resurrection, a new life, but the mean streets of Toronto—variously steeped in shades of strong urine and blue ice—eat away at what’s left of his soul the moment he predictably puts a foot wrong.
That’s the kind of tone and style Canadian director David Weaver aims for in his surprisingly engrossing The Samaritan. And noir is nothing if not style, even if in these visually illiterate days the term gets defined simply as generic plot elements. Weaver isn’t so much after genre—thriller, crime caper, grifter snares within snares—as the pleasure of moving, as slow as doom, through an almost subterranean cinematic medium, beautiful yet deadly in matters of hope or innocence.
The Samaritan is no Tarantino firecracker; its deliberate narrative pacing derails crucially in rushed climactic passages. But this chronicle of a damaged man’s long dying casts a genuinely noir spell, and gives Jackson the chance to show how interesting an actor he can be when not straitjacketed into rote action roles.