RoboCop (2014) / Action-Thriller
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence, brief strong language, sensuality, and some drug material
Running Time: 104 min.
Cast: Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Abbie Cornish, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael K. Williams, Jackie Earle Haley, Jennifer Ehle, Jay Baruchel, Jean Paul Ruttan, Marianne Jean-Baptiste
Director: Jose Padilha
Screenplay: Joshua Zetumer (based on the screenplay by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner)
Review published February 12, 2014
As with the recent remake of another Paul Verhoeven classic, Total Recall, the 2014 reboot of RoboCop is a film that didn't need to be made. The 1987 film pushed the material to the brink of everything it could be, and beyond. Neither the sequels nor any of the animated series on television were able to come close to the ingenuity of the original's vision and chutzpah.
Needless though it may be, if it absolutely had to be made, and made with a PG-13 rating (it's still a violent film, but in a bloodless sort of way that's ready-safe for network TV), this Jose Padilha-helmed (Elite Squad, Bus 174) reiteration is about as good as anyone could reasonably expect. Unlike the Total Recall remake, this take doesn't regurgitate large swaths of the plotline and dialogue. Outside of use of the original's basic premise, theme music and the name of its main character, the Joshua Zetumer script (his first) breaks into all-new territory, fleshing out the backstory and beefing up the character development in a way that makes some of the action sequences quite exciting, even if they are mild by comparison to the RoboCop we all know and love.
What's missing here, other than the over-the-top gory violence is the delicious (and, sadly, very prescient) satire on amoral corporate affairs and the stranglehold of corruption that results in decisions not going in the public's best interest, thanks in some part to an irresponsible and misinformative media. There is a certain element of satire here in this version, mostly in its depiction of the bias and wanton fear-mongering of a conservative news organization (echoes of Fox News), as well as in the debate over the use of drones, closed circuit cameras, and the erosion of privacy and civil liberties in exchange for strong-armed government protection. However, this version doesn't comment from an inherent political point of view so much as stitch it in as something that is part of the RoboCop mythos that has to be preserved, even begrudgingly, as if the fans would reject a remake that were a pure action film without some sort of parody of corporations and media.
RoboCop is set in the year 2028, where advances in the field of robotics has gotten so sophisticated, drone forces have been the main thrust of American military peace-keeping in every part of the world. The main corporation heading the tech is OmniCorp, who have been using their reputation and influence in vain to overturn a "no domestic robots" law in order to try to gain a foothold into the U.S. market through replacement of police officers with sophisticated, hi-tech robot agents. Without the human element making decisions, the public by and large fears an uncaring, unemotional, unforgiving police state.
Tenacious OmniCorp Founder/CEO Raymond Sellars (Keaton, Clear History) thinks he may have found a loophole in the law that might sway public opinion in his favor when a Detroit cop and family man named Alex Murphy (Kinnaman, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) is nearly decimated from a nasty car bomb. Working with renown scientist Dr. Dennett Norton (Oldman, The Dark Knight Rises), OmniCorp funds a multibillion dollar effort to create a robot/human hybrid out of Murphy in order to allay public fears of robot agents when he becomes a hero. However, for Murphy, the process takes a physical and emotional toll on him, resulting in erratic results that eventually leads to tampering with his cyborg make-up that puts him in a perpetual struggle between his emotional human side and the purely emotionless programming in his software.
Let's face it; Verhoeven's original take is an impossible act to follow, so this film will be an automatic disappointment in some form or fashion to anyone who loved the 1987 release. It's less gory, less zany, less ambitious, less political, less satirical, and less humorous. It also fumbles the ball during a couple of key emotional scenes that should have lent the movie some gripping resonance, especially in the scene in which Murphy encounters the bomb that nearly takes his life. The flatness of the event, ain addition to his family's lackluster reaction to it, doesn't contrast so well to the in-your-face gruesomeness of seeing Verhoeven's Murphy lose his limbs, and nearly his life, at the hands of the most sadistic, bloodthirsty psychopaths in the city.
The older film's terrifying images stay with you forever, whereas Padilha's is merely is just a plot point from which to spring what he really wants to get to. Plus, we absolutely hate the villains in the 1987 version, while the ones here are either ill-defined or are more motivated by twisted rationale or greed rather than because they are disgusting degenerates to the core. Though much of his mission is in getting revenge, the screenplay by Joshua Zetumer doesn't give us enough personal loss (other than to Murphy's physical body) to get charged up when RoboCop goes out to take someone specific down.
But the film does score major points in a few key areas. One is that it does give us a lot more of the humanity of Murphy before and during his stint as RoboCop, such that we actually do care for him to succeed over all of the kings trying to use him as a pawn in their grand schemes. Murphy's wife (Cornish, Seven Psychopaths) and child (Ruttan, This Means War) are much more of the overall storyline, allowing for a certain pathos as they try to make a connection with the man who is only a fraction of his former self, not only physically, but mentally and emotionally as well.
Another strength comes in the quality of acting in some key parts (at least by those actors who aren't named Jay Baruchel, This is the End). As he so often is, Gary Oldman is a standout as the benevolent doctor who firmly believes in what he's doing, though he finds he must often uncomfortably compromise with the corporation giving him funding in order to achieve results, sometimes against the best interests of his patients. Samuel L. Jackson (Oldboy, Django Unchained) is captivating, getting to do what he does best -- play a loud-talking blowhard as privatization-touting political news commentator Pat Novak (is the name a mix of former conservative "Crossfire" hosts Pat Buchanan and Robert Novak?). Michael Keaton also gives a fine nuanced performace, reminding us of why we've always liked the guy, in what might be his most meaty role in many years. And though he doesn't have the screen presence and gravitas we might expect from the role of Alex Murphy, we grow to like Swedish actor Joel Kinnaman as the lead, as he does embody the heaviness of a man struggling with a great inner conflict of resolve to do the right thing, even if his programming seems counter to his own instincts.
If this film reminds me of any movie, it's not the first RoboCop so much as the first Iron Man, which also featured an injured man who must merge with technology and find a useful role as the public's great savior. It doesn't have the same level of wit, or the off-the-cuff comic charisma of Robert Downey Jr., but it does feature the same intensity of video-game inspired visuals mixed with eye-popping special effects, and more emphasis on the personal origin of the character over the showcasing of confrontations with cartoonish villains. Plus, the film's ultimate baddie seems to be cut from the same cloth of greed and hunger for power, and the grand finale, which, like Iron Man, is where the film falters the most, has a similar feel to it. With films like this, we explore how our own humanity, as a society, are a constant struggle between the interests of people and those of industry, as embodied not only in the narrative, but with the character of Murphy/RoboCop himself.
While RoboCop falls too short in key areas to even approach a discussion on whether it lives up to the first film, it is a respectable effort that has a lot of good momentum and nifty ideas on its own to admire. And it has the chance to do something the first film never did: spawn a decent sequel.
©2014 Vince Leo