The remake train rolls ever onward, with Paul Verhoeven’s still well-regarded 1987 Peter Weller-starring RoboCop the next modern classic to run through the meat grinder of Hollywood. Emerging on the other side is Jose Padilha’s Joel Kinnaman-starring take on the material, a less violent, less modern, and less engaging actioner that should have done itself the tremendous behavior of being its own robotic beast, not a lesser version of an existing property. Unburdened of any relation to the first film, Padilha’s feature could have possibly stood on its own, but this RoboCop can’t quite break from the expectations of its original.
While the Verhoeven film was a bit of a screed on the dangers of consumerism, little of that shines through in Padilha’s new feature, which is more concerned with exploring the lingering concerns over droid-based warfare than serving as an indictment about buying stuff. Either way, it’s fertile enough ground, and Padilha’s film certainly attempts to make the material its own, with diminishing returns and interest.
This new RoboCop follows the bare bones of the original – a hardnosed cop is terribly injured and injected into a robotic suit that turns him into, well, RoboCop, and he struggles with the line between man and machine. Padilha’s version is more rooted in emotion (while the original RoboCop struggled to remember his human form, this Detective Alex Murphy is nearly always aware of his identity, which presents its own problems), but the film itself never gives itself over to actual emotion.
Kinnaman’s Alex Murphy is fairly undercooked as a character, at least before the accident that ultimately transforms him into the eponymous RoboCop. While he certainly seems dedicated to the law, his family, and his partner, these incredibly basic character traits are too commonplace to make much of a mark. The Swedish actor has proven adept at playing characters with abnormally sliding scales of morality – from The Killing to his Easy Money franchise – and when he is set up as the prototypical “good guy,” he doesn’t exhibit much edge or zing.
After getting blown to bits by a car bomb (thanks to his work bringing down a local baddie), Alex’s fate is soon at the mercy of both his shell-shocked wife and the sprawling Omnicorp, who promise to rebuild him (sort of). While Omnicorp has had (apparent) success with their robotics lines in other countries, the United States has so far resisted the push toward putting machines on the street. Driven by the threat of financial insolubility, CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) and his team (including Jennifer Ehle as some kind of right-hand woman and Jay Baruchel as an appropriately amusing marketing honcho) eventually arrive at an idea: they need to turn their robotic police officer into a hero, something relatable, something human. They need Alex Murphy in their suit.
Aided by the seemingly good-hearted Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), who relishes his more medically-minded work for Omnicorp, Alex becomes RoboCop, and a literal shell of himself. Despite grievous bodily damages, Norton and company are able to salvage literal bits of Alex – most of his head, a single hand – and assemble the suit around them (curiously, whichever technology goes into fixing Alex’s blinded eye and melted skin are never mentioned).
The film appears to be missing a smattering of essential scenes, including the lack of any scene in which the stipulations of Murphy’s new suit are dictated to him (the film moves from Alex waking up and learning about the suit to a sequence involving weapons training – there is no moment when his existence as RoboCop is explained, even in the most basic and friendly of terms). Soon, the “healed” Murphy is dispatched back to his hometown of Detroit to clean up the streets (and maybe also his personal life?) and the internal war between man and machine reaches new heights. The glitches with the program are made plain early – too much of an emotional response will throw off the system, ultimately shutting it down – and it’s only inevitable that Alex’s heart will override his head.
RoboCop lacks an outsized villain to drive its action, though Alex is surely struggling with his own demons and Sellars proves nefarious enough, and the film suffers from that essential forward motion. Padilha earned his action stripes with a pair of satisfying cop dramas, Elite Squad and its sequel, but even with swanky new toys to play with (read: a bigger budget and plenty of opportunity for CGI bolstering), his action sequences have not progressed beyond large-scale shootouts. One of the film’s final action set pieces does feature some entertaining work, but it’s still a mainly bullet-heavy affair that folds in robots, big robots, SWAT vehicles, and actual humans. Another big scene is randomly set in the dark, apparently only to allow Padilha to experiment with Hitchcock-styled camera flashes.
Padilha’s take on the material is set in 2028, but futuristic developments seem limited to Omnicorp’s big robotic advancements and the widespread use of screens (computer, phone, tablet) that feature exposed backs, an element that may look cool but seems fundamentally undesirable (who would want everyone to see what they are doing, even if displayed backwards?). The film does, however, impress with some eye-popping visuals, including nearly every scene that features the RoboCop suit moving around in the world, and especially the reveal of what remains of Alex underneath said suit.
The film does boast a solid supporting cast, though not everyone lives up to their promise. As Clara Murphy, Abbie Cornish serves as the film’s heart, though she needs more to round her out. Michael K. Williams is noticeably undeserved as Murphy’s partner, and if the film is bound for a sequel, we can only hope gets more screen time. Michael Keaton’s costarring turn as the buttoned-down and powered-up CEO Sellars is solid, and his cronies (Ehle and Baruchel) are just fine. Oldman is particularly good as the troubled doctor.
Elsewhere, Samuel L. Jackson screamingly co-stars as Pat Novak, an apparently popular and influential broadcaster who would fit right in with the current Fox lineup, and who uses his television show and its tricky little technical elements to bark loudly about his dedication to robot police officers. Jackson, normally invigorating to watch in any role, is instead needlessly hammy and relentlessly distracting in RoboCop, and the feature would benefit from snipping his peppered-in scenes wholesale.
On its own, RoboCop is a fine February action film, but within the context of springing from a relatively respected piece of source material, it lacks the blood and guts of the original and fails to establish itself as a necessary piece of entertainment.
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