The new RoboCop is as ambitious a re-visioning of a successful franchise as we’ve seen in years, because it dares to be different from its source. Rather than emulate the ultra-violence and dystopian themes of Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 sci-fi blockbuster, director José Padilha dares to focus on the drama in the story, on the man bonded to the machine. The result is a more well-balanced film, though purists and devotees of the original will no doubt miss some of its bloody, gory fun.
In 2028, the U.S. defends its borders and conducts military actions abroad utilizing drone aircraft and fully robotic humanoid soldiers provided by corporate conglomerate OmniCorp. OmniCorp’s executives and its brilliant, ambitious CEO Raymond Sellers (Michael Keaton) wish to build on their financial success by selling their mechanized peacekeepers to stateside law enforcement, but they are prevented from doing so by federal law and split public opinion on the idea of having emotionless machines patrolling city streets and neighborhoods.
The solution? Put a man inside the machine, and thereby put a sympathetic human face on OmniCorp’s product. Sellers tasks Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), a conscientious OmniCorp scientist specializing in robotic prosthetics for amputees, to build their new machine around veteran Detroit police detective Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), the victim of a car bomb attempt on his life while investigating a local crimelord providing illegal weapons to drug dealers. Norton transforms Murphy into a hybrid of human and machine parts that the media dubs “RoboCop”, and not only does the cyborg lawman start efficiently cleaning up Detroit’s crime-ridden streets, but he becomes a hero to the city’s populace and popularizes the idea of robotics on American streets beyond OmniCorp’s wildest marketing projections.
But Murphy, who retains all of his memories and previous emotional attachments, has loose ends from his former life to tie up, as well as a wife and son waiting for him to come home. When those goals come into conflict with OmniCorp’s business agenda and political goals, it sets the stage for a confrontation not just between the creation and his creators, but also between the man and the machine parts that have become a part of him.
Just from those few details of the film’s plot, people who recall fondly Verhoeven’s now-classic sci-fi actioner can already see the differences between it and this new version, but the differences go far deeper than just plot details. Directing from a script by Joshua Zetumer, José Padilha, working in his first fully-English language fictional film, eschews the outlandish and over-the-top personalities that populated the original film in favor of more grounded, realistic characters and characterizations. There’s also a very conscious effort to showcase the man that Murphy was prior to becoming “the future of law enforcement” and explore just how much his remaining humanity conflicts with his new hardware and programming, as well as reconcile with his new condition. It actually provides an opportunity to actor Joel Kinnaman that Peter Weller, the original RoboCop, never really had: the opportunity to actually act, emote, and be Alex Murphy, and the Swedish-American actor, perhaps best known to U.S. audiences for his work on AMC’s “The Killing”, makes the most of the opportunity. He makes Murphy his own.
The additional emphasis on character drama results in a film that’s actually lighter on action and far less gory than its predecessor, as is evidenced by its PG-13 rating. Rest assured, there’s still plenty of slick special effects and eye candy; this RoboCop gets plenty of opportunities to shoot up other robots and criminals, as well as a very cool bike to zoom through Detroit’s traffic with, and the giant ED-209 robots seen in the original make their return, looking scarier and more realistic than ever. If there’s a criticism to made about the production of the film’s set pieces, it’s overuse of “shaky cam” during frenetic scenes of gunplay as characters run around shooting and seeking cover. Thankfully, that particular nausea-inducing technique’s use is limited to just the most frantic of sequences.
Will this new RoboCop prove to be as iconic and enduring a favorite as Verhoeven’s original? Alas, probably not. After all, it was as much all that blood and gore and over-the-top villains like Dick Jones and Clarence Boddicker, made memorable by actors Ronny Cox and Kurtwood Smith, respectively, as well as Weller’s turn as RoboCop, that made the film a franchise-launching hit, and Verhoeven’s keen sense of irony and satire informing every scene that made it a surprise critical hit. A great deal of that vicious wit satirizing American culture is absent from this version, and the criticism of corporate greed and pragmatism is somewhat softened, all in favor of telling a more character-driven and humane story. It’s a worthy effort and it makes this “remake” truly stand apart from what came before, unlike so many other recent big-budget rehashes of previous successes. It’s just not as fun in all the ways that made the original such a sensation.
Except for perhaps Samuel L. Jackson’s work in this film. His is the one truly larger-than-life, blatant parody character in these proceedings, and the one actor who looks like he’s having fun in every scene he appears in. Because of that, he might just end up being the most memorable part of the whole thing, the guy in the metal suit with the cool visor and all the guns, notwithstanding.
Score: 3.5 out of 5
Starring Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Samuel L. Jackson, Abbie Cornish, Jackie Earle Haley, Michael K. Williams, Jennifer Ehle, Jay Baruchel. Directed by José Padilha.
Running Time: 118 minutes
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action including frenetic gun violence throughout, brief strong language, sensuality and some drug material.