FANBOYS (2009)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Pervasive Crude and Sexual Material, Language and Drug Content

Directed by: Kyle Newman

Written by: Ernest Cline & Adam F. Goldberg

Starring: Jay Baruchel, Dan Fogler, Sam Huntington, Chris Marquette, Kristen Bell, David Denman, Christopher McDonald, Ethan Suplee & Seth Rogen

I am a STAR WARS fan. I had the toys growing up (including a Darth Maul inflatable chair), watched the movies over and over, went to STAR WARS scout camp, and am still geeking out over new installments in the saga. FANBOYS is a comedy that is tailor-made for STAR WARS fans. If you don’t like or aren’t familiar with the series in any way, shape or form, you will probably not dig this movie nearly as much as someone who loves STAR WARS. FANBOYS is a fun, goofy and (at points) oddly heartwarming little road trip film for STAR WARS junkies.

The year is 1998 and four friends have unexpectedly reunited at a Halloween party. Eric (Sam Huntington) is trying to grow up and take care of his father’s car dealership business, while Hutch (Dan Fogler) lives in his mother’s garage, Windows (Jay Baruchel) obsesses over his unseen internet girlfriend, and Linus (Chris Marquette) still holds a long-time grudge against Eric. When Eric is informed that Linus is dying of cancer and has four months to live, he tries to make amends with his former best friend by enacting a plan they’ve had since childhood: breaking into Skywalker Ranch and stealing the work print of STAR WARS Episode I. Their plan is crazy and the guys will encounter lots of wacky scenarios on their journey, all while countless STAR WARS references fly at the screen!

The casting of the four childhood friends is spot-on. Sam Huntington (whose biggest roles appear to have been Jimmy in SUPERMAN RETURNS and Mimi-Siku in JUNGLE 2 JUNGLE) stars as Eric, the straight-man of the group. While most of the film is focused on laughter and movie-related hijinks, Huntington shares an effectively emotional story arc with Chris Marquette’s Linus. Marquette and Huntington’s final scene together beautifully summarizes friendship and fanboy culture in a nutshell, complete with why people love being geeks so much and how movies can bring people together. As Hutch, Dan Fogler is allowed to go over-the-top in his obnoxiousness and mostly thrives in getting laughs. Some of his bits fall flat, but most of them hit right on target…similar to how Luke destroyed the Death Star in Episode IV.

Jay Baruchel plays a geeky nerd character that he’s mostly been typecast as, but receives his own enjoyable story arc and has hands-down one of the most awkwardly funny scenes in the entire film. Kristen Bell also makes a strong impression as Zoe, a STAR WARS fangirl who plays a significantly bigger role during the second half. Keep your eyes peeled for lots of cameos. A few STAR WARS cast members pop up and so do many familiar comedic faces. My favorite moments come from three different characters played by Seth Rogen and a brief snippet from Kevin Smith and Jason Mewes. The former is hilarious in his multiple moments, while the latter is hysterically raunchy in his one-minute scene.

FANBOYS milks its 90s setting for nostalgia and retro jokes. There’s the familiar feeling of seeing Mario Kart played on Nintendo 64, having to hook up a phone line to a computer to access the internet, and a kick-ass soundtrack of 90s hits that’s likely to bring back good memories for 90s kids and Generation Y. FANBOYS also pokes fun at how insanely excited people were for Episode I and how much disappointment was around the corner in that movie later being considered the worst Episode. One bit that involves a tattoo of Jar-Jar Binks and Anakin Skywalker is hilarious and the film’s closing line is sure to evoke laughter.

This film is packed to the brim with STAR WARS references, which have been further aided by George Lucas allowing the director to use the saga’s original sound effects. While a police chase ending in a Darth Vader reference is obvious and on-the-nose, other smaller nods stick out too. There are tidbits of STAR WARS trivia that had me scratching my head and saying “Dammit! I used to know this!” Also, there’s a hilarious Darth Maul reference that I completely missed the first time I saw this movie and I immediately caught this time around.

I’m not going to claim that FANBOYS is a perfect film, because the storytelling occasionally seems a tad rushed. While I really enjoy the uplifting emotional arc involving four friends going out for one last adventure, there are moments where it feels shoe-horned in. This could be directly blamed on a troubled production path that had Harvey Weinstein (a.k.a. Harvey Scissorhands) desperate to shred the film to bits, at one point removing the heartwarming subplot entirely and with it, the characters’ main motivation. Being given only 36 hours to assemble a final cut and re-edit the emotional scenes back in, I feel that director Kyle Newman did a damn fine job with this film. FANBOYS is sure to please fans of the STAR WARS saga. If you enjoy STAR WARS, then I highly recommend that you check out FANBOYS for laughs, heart, and undying nostalgia.

Grade: B

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 42 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Adventure Action and some mild Rude Humor

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Directed by: Dean DeBlois

Written by: Dean DeBlois

(based on the book series HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON by Cressida Cowell)

Voices of: Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, T.J. Miller, Kristen Wiig, Cate Blanchett, Djimon Hounsou & Kit Harington

DreamWorks has been bringing impressive competition for Disney in computer-animated family entertainment. Out of their catalog of films, I would definitely say that HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON is the best movie they’ve brought to the screen. Apparently, plenty of audiences and critics agree with me, because that first film has become acclaimed and made huge bank at the box office. It took four years for a sequel to hit theaters and was well worth the long wait to see this stellar sequel in the new animated series. HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 manages to keep the level of high quality that the original had and bring to life a completely new chapter that’s unlike anything in the previous film. Usually animated sequels have an unfortunate habit of wearing out tropes that worked in the past, but DRAGON 2 takes some bold new turns. It’s a great adventure for the whole family.

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Five years have passed since dragons and Vikings have learned to live together. The village of Berk has become a wonderful ever-expanding place. With dragons being kept as pets and being rode in Quidditch-like games, everything seems to be working out perfectly. One-legged Hiccup and Toothless have taken to discovering nearby lands and expanding a map of what surrounds Berk. A chance encounter with a group of dragon hunters leads Hiccup to a familiar face from his past and brings the attention of vicious warlord Drago Bludvist.

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One of the twists that might have been genuinely (god forbid) surprising has been given away in nearly every piece of the marketing. This is just one of many ways that HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 expands the world of its predecessor and ups the stakes at every possible turn. The first film was excellent, but you could definitely tell it was a “kid’s movie” in the comical sense of humor that came through in nearly every scene. It’s a great follow-up, but DRAGON 2 made me forget I was watching “family entertainment” on multiple occasions. I don’t mean this in any sort of negative way, but I am saying that director/writer Dean DeBlois is more willing (or was allowed more room) to take risks this time around. He does and the emotional payoff to most of them resonates strongly. This is the first movie I’ve seen in 2014 where the theater burst into a round of applause when the end credits began to roll. It’s a terrifically exciting adventure that’s perfectly suitable for any age, despite heavier material thrown in here and there.

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Every memorable character returns from the first film and some get more screen time than others, but everybody is fleshed out. Two major new additions (one of which will not be specifically mentioned, even though the trailer gives it away) are also very well executed. The first film kind of followed the “secret friendship” formula of storytelling and there was no clear-cut antagonist (save for a massive dragon in the final third). DRAGON 2 introduces the intimidating Drago Bludvist and this is one of the best villains I’ve seen in an animated film for quite some time. He comes off as a little understated at first, but more the time spent on him, the more you understand what made him so cruel and why he’s such a lunatic. There was a good portion of the movie where I wanted Drago to die a horrible, painful as possible death because of how downright evil he comes off. That’s a very rare thing to see in a bad guy (especially in a computer animated “kid’s movie”).

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The visuals have gotten even better this time around and that’s saying a lot because they were really phenomenal parts of the first film. Everything is beautiful to look at and every landscape feels like a piece of art. The dragons themselves still come off as winged, scaly, fire-breathing pets and all the children in the theater seemed to love that aspect of it. Toothless is undeniably cute and I still wish that he was real, so I could ride him through the skies. There’s still quite a bit of comic relief thrown in and the story does go through some predictable motions (especially in the final act), but it’s an exciting ride that perfectly fits into this summer season saddled with a drought of family movies.

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I won’t say that HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 is better than the first film, but I like them on equal ground for different reasons. This second installment is more mature, complex, and takes far more risks. It’s an awesome piece of family entertainment and shows that the series (third movie is already in the works) is blossoming into a maturity, kind of like the young central characters. Beautifully animated, surprisingly gripping, and braver than most of the family entertainment to come out in the last few years, HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 is a sequel that completely justifies it’s existence. It lives up to the first film and serves as a wonderful second chapter in a series that might go down as one of the best of its kind since the TOY STORY trilogy!

Grade: A

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON (2010)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 38 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Sequences of Intense Action and some Scary Images, and brief Mild Language

Dragon poster

Directed by: Chris Sanders, Dean DeBlois

Written by: Will Davies, Dean DeBlois, Chris Sanders

(based on the novel HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON by Cressida Cowell)

Voices of: Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Jonah Hill, T.J. Miller, David Tennant

With the sequel coming out in a matter of weeks, I figured it was time to watch the first HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON. Based on the series of children’s novels, this animated fantasy film skyrocketed to becoming a huge success and currently lies within IMDB’s top 250 (no small feat for an animated feature that doesn’t involve the companies Pixar or Disney). DRAGON is the best animated film to come out of DreamWorks (with SHREK 2 as a close second). The story is enchanting. The humor is whimsical and enjoyable for all ages. The visuals can range from good to dazzling. This is a great family film and just a great movie overall.

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For those who don’t know the story, the film is set is in a Viking village on the island of Berk. This village is constantly under attack by dragons. These fire-breathing monsters run amok, steal food, and have been responsible for the deaths of quite a few Vikings (so we’re told, we never see any of these graphically go down as this is a children’s film). Hiccup is the misfit son of the village leader. While everybody in Berk is all brawn and no brains, Hiccup is skinny and constantly inventing new contraptions. He also longs to slay a dragon in order to make a name for himself. One night, Hiccup does take down a Night Fury (the most feared and mysterious type of dragon) with one of his inventions and nobody believes him. Instead of killing the dragon, Hiccup wound grounding it on a mountain. The Night Fury seems unable to properly fly away and Hiccup finds that he doesn’t have it in him to kill the beast. Hiccup and the Night Fury (named Toothless) form a relationship that could be doomed due to the Vikings’ fearful nature of dragons.

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The formula used in HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON involves an awkward outsider keeping a secret under wraps from his judgmental peers. It isn’t completely new. It’s been seen in plenty of other stories, especially kid’s movies. What sets this film apart is how everything is executed. I never thought I’d see a movie that turned a dragon into a cute adorable creature that you wished existed so you could keep it as a pet. Color me surprised, because I want a pet Toothless of my own and I’m a grown-ass man who knows that dragons don’t exist. The visual style is a little shaky during moments, as if it wasn’t as fully rendered as it could be, but the movie looks gorgeous in other parts (especially in a couple of flight scenes with Hiccup riding on the back of Toothless).

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I thought the voice cast for the film, populated with a lot of well-known names, was impressive as well. Jay Baruchel isn’t necessarily what you would call a leading man, but he does have the voice for Hiccup and makes the character his own. Gerard Butler isn’t screaming “This is Sparta!” 300-style, but does play Hiccup’s quick-to-judge father and doing a fine job in the part. I did like the love interest played by (unfamiliar face for me) America Ferrera. As far as everybody else went, I could take or leave them. They weren’t too memorable or given much character development other than being detractors for Hiccup that gradually grow to accept him. It was pretty neat to see R-rated comedy regulars Christopher Mintz-Plass (McLovin from SUPERBAD and the well-endowed stoner in NEIGHBORS), Jonah Hill (also from SUPERBAD and KNOCKED UP) and TJ Miller (who starred opposite Baruchel in SHE’S OUT OF MY LEAGUE) in a kid’s movie.

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Though the initial set-up may seem pretty familiar in its general formula, I really enjoyed where the movie went in the daring conclusion and some twists sprinkled throughout. DreamWorks has a knack for going into brave places that Disney wouldn’t dare touch. It’s not that the studio is out-and-out aiming for an adult audience, but they are willing to take new risks and that’s something Disney hasn’t been willing to do for the last couple of decades. HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON has a rousing and very exciting climax that had me glued to the screen and I’ll gladly sit through the film again multiple times in the future. I’m very much looking forward to the second installment to see where things go from here.

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HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON is a wonderful film. It will entertain older viewers, while delighting children. Toothless is a dragon for the ages and I would consider him to be adorable. The story itself isn’t entirely unfamiliar, but it does take some risks and goes into territory that separates DreamWorks from Disney and Pixar films. The cast all fit their parts, even if a few members/characters didn’t make a huge impact on the story. It’s a movie that brims with creativity and has earned every bit of its reputation as one of the best family movies in the past 5 years. This is highly recommended, if you haven’t already seen it. If you have, then watch it again!

Grade: A

GOON (2012)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 32 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Brutal Violence, Non-Stop Language, some Strong Sexual Content and Drug Use

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Directed by: Michael Dowse

Written by: Jay Baruchel & Evan Goldberg

Starring: Seann William Scott, Jay Baruchel, Alison Pill, Marc-Andre Grondin, Kim Coates, Eugene Levy & Liev Schreiber

Combining the sports movie formula with a fight movie formula and throwing in a hefty amount of comedy, GOON is a movie that is far better than it had any indication of being. This is a pretty enjoyable flick that is worth kicking back and killing some time with. I watched it in the spur of the moment, having barely heard of it in the past and this is a nice little surprise. It’s far from a comedic masterpiece. Some problems can be found in the storytelling/pacing. One major compliment that can be given is that I can’t think of anything I’ve seen (off the top of my head) that’s exactly like GOON. There are major props to be given for that.

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Doug Glatt is a lovable guy, though he’s a bit slow in the head. He works as a bouncer at a bar and feels like the black sheep of his family due to this less-prestigious job. Both his overbearing father and his gay brother are well-respected doctors. During a night of relaxation and fun, Doug attends a hockey game with his best friend only to have a violent encounter with an aggravated player. His stint at the game earns Doug the attention of a hockey coach and soon enough, Doug is recruited as the resident enforcer for a hockey team. Earning a reputation and the title of Doug “The Thug,” on the rink for his bloody brawls, Doug quickly is elevated to the bigger leagues. This is where he tries to make a run at actually trying to play real hockey (to the dismay of his new coach) and attempts to form a friendship with a troubled teammate. This is all occurring while Doug’s parents frown upon his newfound career, Doug finds love in a troubled woman named Eva, and another famous hockey goon (Ross “The Boss”) waits on the horizon for a chance to fight.

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GOON is very entertaining. There’s absolutely no doubt about that. The script by Evan Goldberg and Jay Baruchel covers a lot of ground in 90 minutes, but maybe it’s a tad too much packed in? I felt like the film spent such a brief amount of time on some plot points that everything suffered a little bit as a result. The relationship between Doug and his family is limited to about three scenes. One of the more important subplots, Doug’s budding relationship with Eva, also felt too condensed. I bought the evolution of them as a possible couple. Seann William Scott and Alison Pill do have remarkable chemistry together, but the film needed to develop them together more. If the movie were about 20 to 30 minutes longer than it really would have made a difference in covering these interesting subplots. There were just so many threads points that needed more time.

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One aspect that wasn’t rushed in the slightest were the front-and-center sports elements. The really cool thing about GOON is that it plays out simultaneously as a sports flick and a fighting movie. There’s obviously a lot of humor thrown into the mix, but it’s all done with just enough believability to make the viewer root for Doug’s underdog team. The impending showdown between Doug “The Thug” and Ross “The Boss” is given some substantial weight. I really enjoyed the final scenes of the film which took a tad of an unusual turn for a sports-comedy, although (as my friend viewing the film with me noted) things could have been made even more unconventional and better for it.

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The film is very well-cast too. Besides the aforementioned Schreiber playing the main antagonist. Jay Baruchel (co-writer of this film) makes an appearance as Doug’s foul-mouthed best friend. This character was funny at points, but also got to a level of annoying (which may have been the intention). Alison Pill is pretty damn good as the romantic interest and given somewhat complex ground to cover seeing as her relationship is a complicated one. Eugene Levy makes a brief appearance as Doug’s father. I didn’t recognize most of the other cast members off-hand, but there are plenty of colorful characters (a pair of twins kept making me laugh as did an ill-tempered player with pictures of his mother plastered all over his helmet). Finally, there’s Seann William Scott. Known for playing ridiculous idiots, GOON marks a change for Scott. He’s still playing a moron, but he’s a lovable moron with good manners.

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As a whole, GOON is entertaining, despite some script points being undercut and rushed. The violence (of which there is plenty on the rink) is gloriously shot and done with a gleeful style to it. The entire film is laced with a charming sensibility. It’s a very enjoyable flick that winds up suffering from some pacing problems. Some of the parts of the script should either have been expanded or excised entirely. Still, GOON is one that I recommend as far as sports comedies are concerned.

Grade: B-

ROBOCOP (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 57 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Action including Frenetic Gun Violence Throughout, brief Strong Language, Sensuality and some Drug Material

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Directed by: Jose Padilha

Written by: Joshua Zetumer

Starring: Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Samuel L. Jackson, Abbie Cornish, Jackie Earle Haley, Michael K. Williams, Jennifer Ehle, Jay Baruchel & Aimee Garcia

Very much in the same situation as the TOTAL RECALL remake, ROBOCOP is a reboot of a cheesy action sci-fi film that was directed by Paul Verhoeven. In the exact same marketing tactic, the studio took what was once a gratuitously violent R-rated film and remade it as a PG-13 flick to attract the widest possible demographic. What was stripped out of the already ridiculous premise is the insane level of gore and in its place is a much more rushed pace of storytelling that attempts to add something new to the mix, but winds up being treated as a mere afterthought. ROBOCOP is not a good film or even a tolerable time-waster. This is a remake that sports a big budget, but feels like it belongs as a Saturday night movie on the Syfy Channel.

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In the near future, technology has advanced a point where robots aren’t out of the ordinary. OmniCorp is the company behind the design of robotic soldiers that identifies threats and neutralize them. The robots are stationed in plenty of other countries (as seen by an entirely pointless prologue set in the Middle East), but the USA has made it illegal for a robot to patrol the streets of any city in America. The marketing department and president of OmniCorp are desperate for anything to fight this law, which in turn would make them extremely rich.

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Enter Alex Murphy, a clichéd cop stereotype in the disguise of a real character with a name. Not surprisingly, his last mission went terribly wrong and landed his partner in the hospital. The drug lord that he attempted to bust plants a car bomb. It explodes and leaves Alex with very few options of living. OmniCorp takes Alex and rebuilds him. Keeping only his head, a set of organs, and a single hand, Alex is becomes a machine. He’s a Robocop (for lack of a better word) and patrolling the streets to keep citizens safe. The drug dealer may not be the only one that Alex must be wary of, because OmniCorp has some sinister dealings behind closed doors.

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Allow me to address the good things about this movie before diving headlong into what sucks about it. The effects are pretty stellar in most scenes. The character of Robocop looks badass and some of the other machines are equally cool. There was an element added (which I won’t spoil) that tries to take the remake in a bit of a new direction for a while. It succeeds on some levels, but there simply wasn’t enough time dedicated to telling this piece of the story. Some of the cast members are familiar and do well in their roles. Gary Oldman is quite good as the scientist who builds Alex’s robotic body. Samuel L. Jackson plays a Bill O’Reilly-esque figure and is fun to watch. Abbie Cornish is decent as Alex’s wife. Then there’s Jackie Earle Haley playing one of the villains and he’s the best performer in the entire film. He oozes bad guy and seems to be having a lot of fun.

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On the other side of the coin, the character of Alex isn’t compelling at all. It could be attributed to writing, but Joel Kinnaman isn’t charismatic and seems to be basing his acting off stuff he’s seen in many other police thrillers. The rest of the cops are walking and talking clichés. To be fair to Kinnaman, the scenes with him training to be Robocop and adjusting to his new life are where he really shines. Otherwise, I could care less about if he lives, dies, and becomes a robot. Michael Keaton (once known for playing Batman) seems to slumming it here. The villain is tired and (again) basing his performance on other villain roles in better movies. The usually hilarious Jay Baruchel is grossly miscast here. If you want to see Jay in a good serious performance, watch GOOD NEIGHBORS. He’s out of his element in the ROBOCOP remake!

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Since the story has been adjusted from a hard R-rated 80’s flick to a modern PG-13 would-be summer blockbuster, some changes were obviously made to the original’s material. The most notable of which come in Alex being blown up by a car bomb (instead of shot up by a gang), Robocop’s black armor (as opposed to silver), and a significant lack of good action sequences. There aren’t a lot of action scenes in this ROBOCOP movie (already a bad sign) and two stand out for horrible reasons. An early flashback is shot with such off-the-wall shaky camera work that I couldn’t make out who was shooting at what. Then what could have been the film’s highlight is ruined by being shot in the dark (making for confusion with various gun blasts from unseen foes) and split between two different night-vision lenses. The problem with the latter is that these looked like a visuals from Super Nintendo video game.

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ROBOCOP is a remake of a silly 80’s action flick, but never captures what made that original film so entertaining. The characters range from enjoyable to downright one-dimensional (especially in the case of Robocop himself). Most of the action scenes are downright incomprehensibly messy with obscured or shaky visuals, instead of bloody violence. The soundtrack is mighty annoying. Rushed pacing is engaged on the more interesting parts of the film, but way too much time in spent in the boring moments. At one point, Jackie Earle Haley’s character refers to Robocop as “I wouldn’t buy that for a dollar.” The same can be said about this film. Some good things aside, ROBOCOP isn’t worth a cent of your hard-earned cash. Wait for late night cable and prepare for it to put you to sleep. That’s where this tired remake belongs.

Grade: D+

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