Here's a job Neill Blomkamp will never have: making ads for the South African tourism industry. In the director's 2009 feature debut, District 9, Johannesburg is a place of barbed-wire shantytowns, sooty skies, violent divides between classes and races (and an alien race). After turning Los Angeles into a similarly dystopian hellhole in 2013's Elysium, Blomkamp is back on his old stomping grounds in Chappie, a not-very-futuristic (it's 2016) shoot-'em-up about a robot police force, artificial intelligence, and the jams big movie stars find themselves in when they value a paycheck over a script.
Those stars are Hugh Jackman and Sigourney Weaver. The former, wearing a dorky haircut and a look of nutty menace, plays an engineer whose designs for a human-controlled robot enforcer - the Moose - have been passed over for a more nimble troop of computer-driven machines named Scouts. He is disgruntled, to say the least.
Weaver is a CEO who has a contract with the Johannesburg Police Department. The Scouts have proved a big success, swooping down into high-crime quadrants, guns ablazin', while the human cops can rest safe back at HQ. The actress has only a few scenes, really, emerging from her office to congratulate or chastise her employees. She seems a bit stymied by the techie dialogue.
The titular hero of Chappie is one of these 'bots - gone rogue and hanging with some Jo'burg gangstas. Created by the nerdy weapons engineer Deon (Dev Patel, busy this week managing this business and The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), Chappie, voiced and motion-captured by Sharlto Copley, was seriously damaged in a police action and sent to the trash heap. But Deon salvages him to work on his secret A.I. project. Soon enough, Deon gets the program to work, and Unit 22 - Chappie - has a consciousness all his own. And then he's abducted by a street gang headed by Ninja and Yolandi (real-life rappers Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser of the band Die Antwoord). Chappie, with his jutting rabbit-ears-like antennas, gets tattoos and bling, a jive swagger, and a kind of Jamaican patois, bonding with the criminals and leaving Deon in a precarious position.
Rounds of artillery fire punctuate the more intimate makeshift-family moments.
Chappie has a nothing-to-lose Roger Cormanesque quality about it, low on budget (except for the CGI robots) and low on meaning, but full of high-velocity chases, helicopter pursuits, and weapons blasting around empty warehouses marred by graffiti and trash.
Just another sunny day in fun South Africa.
Chappie ** (Out of four stars)
Directed by Neill Blomkamp. With Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman, and Sigourney Weaver. Distributed by Sony Pictures.
Running time: 2 hours
Parent's guide: R (violence, profanity, adult themes).
Playing at: Area theaters.EndText