Dead or alive, you’re going with him: “RoboCop”

February 19, 2014


I had the knives out for this one as soon as it was announced. I mean, remake RoboCop? Why? Because the last one was so lacking? It wasn’t a good enough movie? I mean, hey, it’s only become a classic, one-of-kind action movie beloved by pretty much everybody. But, yeah, you know those stop-motion ED-209s would look way cooler of they were CGI. And the action sequences were edited to appeal to an audience not hopelessly addled by ADD. So, what the heck—let’s just remake the damn thing. Just start over and maybe we’ll get it right this time. But once I got past the craven rationale for this remake I was able to separate it from the original and set the bar appropriately low. Surprisingly, the new RoboCop—while no classic by any stretch of the imagination—is still a pretty good action flick.

One of the first things Jose Padilha gets right with his remake is to largely divorce the story and tone  from the 1987 version. The broad strokes are there—cop gets cyborgized, becomes a Detroit police autobot, find himself caught between the well-connected street thugs who killed him and the atavistic corporation that rebuilt him. But Padilha and screenwriter Joshua Zetumer (adapting the original screenplay) don’t try to recreate much else from the original and tell their own story.

Instead, this RoboCop spends the bulk of its second act showing Murphy and his family’s struggle to accept what he is—hell, and to just understand what he is. This struggle for autonomy—the man vs. machine, the mind vs. the programming—make up a surprising amount of the substance of this film. For Murphy, this struggle comes to the forefront as he investigates his own murder and goes increasingly off of OmniCorp’s reservation.

Yeah, it's cool enough, but can it climb steps?

Yeah, it’s cool enough, but can it climb steps?

Unlike the original film, the corporate intrigue and the street crime never dovetail, but the story never suffers for it, as both fronts further his journey of self-awareness. And here the new RoboCop does something interesting by paying attention to the issues of body-horror inherent in the premise—something the original glossed over. In one particularly horrific scene we see Murphy stripped of his cybernetic body and he’s just a head and a set of lungs. It’s a terrifying scene, and it hangs over our understanding of the character.

The original was as much a parody of late ‘80s culture—corporate, consumer, and public—as it was an action movie. And it was a broad parody at that. Padilha’s movie is much drier and, it should be said, de-fanged than that. The world-building provided by Samuel L. Jackson’s right wing pundit Pat Novak fails to draw any blood, but an opening sequence showing us the drone-happy near-future is, as an embedded news team in an occupied Tehran films a series of suicide attacks on the drones keeping order, and it’s played as a great triumph.

He's like a Darryl Gates wet dream.

He’s like a Darryl Gates wet dream.

Likewise, Padilha’s portrayal of corporate culture is equally subtle. Rather than playing the company as heartless to the point of sociopathic, OmniCorp is ruled by a Steve Jobs-ian visionary (played with a perfect mixture of arrogance and manic zeal by Michael Keaton) who rocks business casual jeans and sweater combos. This OmniCorp is less interested in gentrification than scoring PR coups, and RoboCop is just a new product to open up a market. It’s less exciting than watching a lackey get shredded by a glitch ED-209, but equally pointed.

This also film brings Murphy’s wife and son into a more prominent position. We barely saw them in the original—they were essentially lost to Murphy after his transformation—but in this film they have to contend with what Murphy has become. It’s not particularly gracefully done, but it does lightly echo of the experiences of countless families of disabled veterans. It’s an evocative subplot that couldn’t work in 1987.

Also helping things along is a great cast. Gary Oldman continues to be solid and understated as an empathetic scientist who created RoboCop. Abie Cornish is sympathetic in the underwritten role of Murphy’s wife, and Jackie Earle Haley is appropriately menacing as OmniCorp’s robot-wrangler/henchman. Only Joel Kinnaman as Murphy is a bit of a disappointment. He doesn’t have any of Peter Weller’s amazing physicality (Weller basically owned RoboCop, even if the flashier roles went to the supporting cast), nor is he particularly charismatic, mostly letting the suit do all the work. That’s too bad, but it’s not a deal-breaker.

Apropos of nothing, this would make a great C.H.i.Ps reboot.

Apropos of nothing, this would make a great CHiPs reboot.

Finally, we have Padilha’s skill with action sequences, which is considerable. He’s a little too enamored with handheld cameras, but he calms down a bit by the midway point, and he makes the big set pieces electric and energetic. The assault on the gun-runner’s stronghold—done in darkness and illuminated by muzzle-flashes—is a real show-stoppper.

Still, the movie does hit a few bum notes. It’s hard to see this Detroit as the crime-ridden hellhole that Verhoeven gleefully showed in the original. This Detroit seems curiously functional. It’s difficult to tell precisely why anyone would think we need machine-gun-wielding cyborgs policing the streets.

Some other points to ponder:

* Samuel L. Jackson’s turn as fourth-wall breaking Novak is largely pointless, but he does make the movie’s theme abundantly clear for the members of the audience who have the brain of a goldfish.

* RoboCop doesn’t do a lot of, well, copping. We mostly hear about how effective he is at meetings and press conferences. That’s a little disappointing, but with a 121 minute run time, I can see why it’d be abbreviated.

* Along those lines, this movie could have touched a nerve by exploring the militarization of urban policing. With stop-and-frisk largely determining the New York City mayoral race, this film could have been genuinely prescient. Oh well…

* I used to think it was just his role on The Killing, but based on this, Kinnaman may actually believe all Americans speak in that pretty-fly-for-a-white-guy patois he uses.

"(sigh) Let's try this again: The rains in Spain fall mainly on the plains."

(sigh) Let’s try this again: The rains in Spain fall mainly on the plains.”

* One thing it shares with the original is a limitless supply of ammo. No one ever has to reload, no matter how many shots they fire.

* The human hand RoboCop has seemed like a dumb idea in the production stills, but in the context of Murphy’s struggle to define his humanity against the machine it’s a nice visual metaphor.

* Allegedly, Padilha was tightly handcuffed during the making of this movie, and it wasn’t a very pleasant experience. It’s interesting to think of the movie that he might have made.

So, that’s RoboCop. It’s not a classic, and doesn’t stand all that well beside the original. But let’s look at the track record for remakes, shall we: Total Recall, Carrie, The Amazing Spider-Man, Star Trek Into Darkness…and that’s just within the past 18 months alone. Sure, it’s a low bar to clear but it’s the bar we have. At the end of the day it’s a good, satisfying action flick.


  1. Hahahaha! I laughed hard when reading the last photo caption :)))

    I agree with you about Detroit. It was also on my mind and I was questioning why it needs a robot police. I mean, it doesn’t look like it’s in serious situation like it is portrayed in Iran, when the robots checking out the people walking on the street. I think Robocop in this movie was created more to take revenge on Vallon, which is not really worth it after all those expensive and painful tests he had to go through in China :p

    • Yeah, in the original movie, Detroit looks like a war zone.

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