Tuesday 18 February 2014

Letterboxd: ROBOCOP (1987) • RUSH (2013) • THE PURGE (2013)

Tuesday 18 February 2014
★★★★★ (out of five)

I bore people with this story, but ROBOCOP is a formative movie for me because of the sequence where blue-eyed cop Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) has his body torn apart by gunfire from a group of howling, reprobate criminals, led by ringleader Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith).

It was a moment of cinema that introduced me to the brutalities of the art-form, and to this day I'm bewildered my parents let me watch this at the tender age of 8 or 9. It was a moment of bad parenting, it's fair to say, and one never repeated (I had to sneakily watch things like ALIENS, PREDATOR and HIGHLANDER on VCR in my bedroom), but nevertheless I'm grateful in the sense ROBOCOP became a significant viewing experience.

Even without my personal attachment to something that kicked down barriers in my developing psyche, ROBOCOP remains a fantastic B-movie that became more than the sum of its parts. A lot of this is down to Dutch director Paul Verhoeven (making his English-language debut), who brought an unflinching foreigner's eye to the script. The film has a dark undercurrent of humour, mixed with unpleasant gore and gruelling violence. Today, I'm surprised by how well ROBOCOP's visuals stand up to 21st-century scrutiny—particularly the iconic design of RoboCop's suit by Rob Bottin, sold magnificently by Weller in a beautiful performance that's 95% body language and 5% flat vocals. We only spend a fraction of the movie in Officer Murphy's company, before he's ironically slain in an old steel mill, and yet we somehow have a deep attachment to his situation and revenge story. Verhoeven has often said this is partly the reason Murphy's death scene was so distended and barbarous, because how could an audience not want to see justice prevail in Murphy's metal afterlife?

Are there things I now consider problems and missed opportunities, having seen countless movies since 1987? Of course there is. It's a shame Alex Murphy's pre-robotic existence isn't more established, which in turn means his relationship with partner Lewis (Nancy Allen) isn't as deep as you remember (she only knew the guy for a few hours). I also wish time had been spent on the issue of Murphy's family, who aren't a major part of the story and only seen in flashbacks/dreams once Murphy's been resurrected as a corporate product. (ROBOCOP 2 wisely spent some time on this matter, and yet still gave it short shrift.) I was also surprised by how quickly the story unfolds, which in some ways gives the film a rushed feel. It feels like Murphy was killed and then came back to work a month or so later, to the same Precinct, for instance. And, weirdly, the film's satirical infomercials that Verhoeven added to alleviate the story's darkness aren't close to a funny as you remember them being (although the 'NUKEM' family board game still made me giggle).

However, in all the areas that matter, ROBOCOP remains an impressive movie that hasn't aged that badly (even the stop-motion ED-209 looks decent, in this Blu-ray remastered edition from a 4K transfer). It's not just a very robust and enjoyable sci-fi cautionary tale, but a clever satire of corporate America in the Reagan era, embroidered with indelible imagery and ideas.

★★★½ (out of five)

The big surprise is how this isn't really Chris Hemsworth's film (playing British racing ace James Hunt), as the THOR star is upstaged by Daniel Brühl (playing Hunt's nemesis Niki Lauda). It helps that Lauda's the one who gets the voice-over and the more dramatic character arc in RUSH. He evolves the most, basically. I didn't expect that (as Formula 1 history isn't my speciality), so it was a nice surprise.

The racing sequences are well-choreographed, but oddly interchangeable. They didn't thrill me as I was expecting them to, either, but maybe things were different on the big screen with the sound system cranked up to 11. .

RUSH is ultimately an old-fashioned film about masculinity, stubbornness, rivalry and obsession between two professionals whose mutual hatred propelled both to greatness... almost paying the ultimate price along the way. Incidentally, it was scary to realise just how dangerous motor racing was in the mid-1970s (a frightening statistic mentioned at the start is that two drivers lost their life every season).

I had a lot of fun watching RUSH. Brühl was excellent and Howard managed to make something that was intimate and character-based, while also allowing for big Hollywood-sized thrills along the way. Something about it prevented me from being completely swept along in the story, however, and I think it's because the plot took a long time before its big "shock"* was delivered, and then it starts wrapping up just as things were getting interesting.

(* I'm not sure if already knowing the Hunt/Lauda story is a good or a bad thing when watching RUSH, but it feels like an informed experience would be weighed down by a feeling of inevitability. I think I was glad to have no idea where the film was heading.)

★★ (out of five)

THE PURGE, in this sci-fi thriller, refers to an annual 12-hour period of time where the U.S government condone widespread criminal activity; including murder, theft and rape. In director James DeMonaco's speculative vision of 2022, this half-day of catharsis has proven effective in driving crime rates down to an inconsequential 1%.

It's a great hook for a "what if?" story, no matter how stupid and untenable the idea would be in practice—but portraying bizarre events is often a good way to explore aspects of humanity and society at large. Unfortunately, for the most part THE PURGE uses its hook as a loose set-up for a by-the-numbers 'home invasion' story, where the affluent Sandin family—father James (Ethan Hawke), mother Mary (Lena Headey) and their two children (Adelaide Kane, Max Burkholder)—face a dilemma when their barricaded suburban home becomes sanctuary for a preyed on homeless man (Edwin Hodge), whose masked attackers come calling.

Despite running a mere 85-minutes, THE PURGE is one of those films that begins to drag its heels once the novelty of its idea wears off. It doesn't help that, once the home invasion angle comes into play, you start to wish for a better film that was wider in scope and could better dramatise a country where seemingly ordinary people are given permission to do despicable, callous, murderous things. To be fair, the story does eventually twist back to tackle such things, but it comes too late in the game.

As THE PURGE made just shy of $90m from a $3m budget, a sequel is planned for this summer—which appears to have a less claustrophobic, house-bound storyline. Maybe that will be an improvement, narratively, but the trade-off will be a less fresh idea.
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