It’s rare nowadays to find a movie like “Chappie,” a robot-cop action romp set in a nasty near-future South Africa, only in that it carries an R rating and yet feels designed to appeal directly to 11-year-olds. Everyone has these movies growing up, violent or sexy flicks that become young favorites, but rarely are their central characters so obviously geared toward kids.
Sharlto Copley, playing the robot’s moves and voice from behind layers of digital wizardry, comes off as a bit of a dork who is actually stealthy-cool because he’s, duh, a robot who talks and gives dap and throws ninja stars with spooky accuracy. This year kids waaaaaay too young to see this movie are going to be Chappie for Halloween. At least it’s better than, say, dressing up your rugrats as a Predator.
The childlike robot at the heart of this one begins as an infant artificial intelligence, the breakthrough for the engineer who designs him, Deon (a mostly annoying Dev Patel). He’s also born into the waiting arms of some gangsters, played by hip-hop duo Die Antwoord (Yolandi Visser and Ninja) reaching the edge of their range as characters called “Yolandi” and “Ninja.” They raise Chappie over one very fast-learning week but as well try to enlist him to pull a big heist, so as to pay off and not be squashed by a raging warlord named Hippo (Brandon Auret). Chappie, thrown into battle as he’s still figuring out how to talk, makes an affable and innocent cracker of skulls. He’s eager, a quick learner, kind of adorable. If he had hair, you’d want to tousle it.
There’s some seriously cool stuff in here, lots of quality explosions and futuristic weapons and bombastic Die Antwoord on the soundtrack. Hugh Jackman plays a frustrated ex-soldier at Deon’s company who is tired of watching the robot cop program suck away all the oxygen from his own pet, a hulking war machine they call Moose. That machine is such a “RoboCop” throwback that is might as well wear a nametag reading ED-209. Chappie’s analogue would be the cyborg in that classic, but he owes more to Johnny 5 of “Short Circuit” and maybe even Wall-E as friendly, resourceful movie bots built with apparent Happy Meal stardom in mind.
Director Neill Blomkamp (“District 9,” “Elysium”) spins a fantastic visual creation with Chappie, an utterly convincing on-screen toy. He learns to move and talk with the swagger of his gangster-twit adopted dad (again, weirdly cute) and evinces curious talent every so often, such as his landscape-painting technique apparently cribbed from an inkjet printer. This is a character study of a unique and, in his way, convincing protagonist. But the script can’t break free of its strangely infantile underpinnings, in which rappers and other mediocre actors are talking to a robot as if he were a toddler. Quality fighting! Top-notch robot! The bug-eyed antics of South African rap stars! Blah dialogue, and a story that you can punch holes in like a soft fog. Other than that, this is a shameless crowd-pleaser.
Listen, though, if a bumbling story doesn’t trip you up? Say, if you’re an 11-year-old kid whose parents do the math on what a babysitter costs and decide to drag you to the movies anyway, without looking at things like R-ratings and the fact that people get, like, chopped in half and perforated with bullets in a movie with a friendly name? Then “Chappie” is going to be your cup of whatever it is kids drink these days, probably some metastasized brand of Mountain Dew full of party drugs and urine-staining food dye. You’re going to love “Chappie,” and when your dad remarks, still shuddering, on how much violence there was in it, you should just nod and say you hear that the original “RoboCop” was better, if we could please add it to the Netflix queue when we get home.