Can a movie comment on its own remake? It almost feels that way, as if the original RoboCop, with its satire of ’80s excesses and corporate B.S., saw itself, sometime down the road, being re-appropriated, repackaged, and resold like its hero, Alex Murphy. And though the new RoboCop — much like the new Murphy himself — is a bit more mainstream than its similarly titled predecessor, plenty of the original’s heart and humor remains under the shiny new shell.
That’s all a pretentious-as-hell way of saying this remake doesn’t suck.
The story still follows Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), a Detroit cop and family man in the near future who one day is mutilated and nearly killed by criminals. To save his life, corporate scientists turn him into a cyborg.
But the differences between old and new are clear from the start. Instead of focusing solely on police privatization, this RoboCop also delves into drone warfare. In an O’Reilly Factor-like TV show called The Novak Element, the namesake host (Samuel L. Jackson) shows armed robots inspecting citizens and patrolling the streets in an occupied Tehran. After one of the robots accidentally kills a knife-bearing child, Novak praises the ED-209s for stopping a potential terrorist attack without any U.S. casualties. He questions why robots aren’t being used to make America’s streets safer. “Is America robophobic?” he asks with a straight face.
The Novak segments aren’t that witty or entertaining. They feel like one-note Colbert Report side jokes. The only thing that redeems them even a little is Jackson’s larger-than-life Samuel L. Jacksonness. The action sequences here aren’t great either. Director José Padilha (who made the documentary Bus 174 and the cop thrillers Elite Squad and Elite Squad 2: The Enemy Within in his native Brazil) uses a clichéd shakycam instead of offering any exciting cinematography or direction.
Still, there is suicide bombing and a child getting mowed down in the street. Whatever your stance on politics, that’s some stark imagery for what could’ve been a safe, PG-13 cash cow, and it shows that this movie has some of the original’s guts and, more importantly, its smarts.
The biggest villain here is corporate greed. Even though the United States has outlawed robotic police, Raymond Sellers (Michael Keaton) –– CEO of Omnicorp, an armed robot manufacturer –– is doing all that he can to open up this lucrative market. He has one of his scientists (Gary Oldman), who just wants to help amputees, not make weapons, put a man into a machine to generate some positive publicity, to change public opinion on armed robots. Padilha relishes these early scenes, showing flashy, futuristic tech and its assorted pros and cons.
If only the director had shown the same attention to Murphy, whose scenes with his wife (Abbie Cornish) and son (John Paul Ruttan) are rote and formulaic, just as rote and formulaic as Murphy’s efforts to hunt down a suspected criminal mastermind with partner Lewis (Michael K. Williams).
The movie picks up steam, though, after Murphy is almost killed. We see his wife anguishing over whether or not to “save” him, we see his transition physically and mentally to RoboCop, and we see and feel his horror when he’s shown just how much left of him is actually human. Kinnaman does great work here, going from unimaginable depths of pain and loss to heights of hope and confidence after realizing all the good that he can do.
And we share that hope with his family and Lewis once Murphy begins cleaning up the mean streets of Detroit. In other words, RoboCop can still kick ass. For the most part, the action scenes work well, and Padilha manages to eke out a little darkness and pathos from them, building up to the final confrontation between Murphy and Sellers.
RoboCop looks like a million bucks. Though cooler in the classic silver than in the new black, Murphy looks like the lovechild of a Cylon and an ’80s-era B-movie soldier from the post-apocalyptic future. (Padilha also, thankfully, doesn’t treat technology as something to fear intrinsically, a rarity for Hollywood.)
Though largely unnecessary, the new RoboCop stands well enough on its own. And, hey, maybe if it does well at the box office, there’ll be a sequel that doesn’t suck either.
Starring Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, and Michael Keaton. Directed by José Padilha. Written by Joshua Zetumer, based on Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner’s screenplay. Rated PG-13.