The remake of Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 film—which was both ultra-violent for its time (getting at R rating) and sharply satirical—has a lot of things on its mind. What does it mean to be human? How great is the power of love? How far are Americans willing to sacrifice civil liberties for security? To what lengths are corporate bigwigs ready to go in the name of profit? Will even a principled scientist abandon his ethics to make his dreams a reality? These are all big issues that the new “Robocop” raises, but in the end only fleetingly. The movie’s title figure might be a straight-arrow cop and loving husband and father whose consciousness—as well as the bits of his body that survive after an attempt to blow him away—are implanted into crime-fighting body armor. But in the end what it’s really about aren’t all the existential questions raised by such a procedure, but gun battles and explosive set-pieces. The result is a competent action movie, but one that could have been, like the 1987 film, something more than that.
After a prologue set in 2028 Tehran—where a conquered population is kept in line by robots and/or drones manufactured by the OmniCorp group presided over by CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton)—and a supposed excerpt from a television broadcast by right-wing demagogue (Samuel L. Jackson) who supports using them to police U.S. streets too—the narrative shifts to Detroit Detective Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), who’s nearly blown to smithereens after a pair of his corrupt colleagues finger him for execution by the drug kingpin (Patrick Garrow) whose life he’s been making miserable.
Enter Sellars, who’s searching for a way of humanizing his robots so that the American public can overcome their qualms (and the congressional opposition) to setting them loose in the potentially lucrative U.S. market. Encouraged by his marketing team (Jennifer Ehle and Jay Baruchel), he persuades tech genius Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) to repurpose what remains of Alex into Robocop, the drone with a human face (and, presumably, moral and legal scruples). The experiment is sanctioned by Murphy’s loving wife Clara (Abbie Cornish), who hopes it will return Alex to her and their young son David (John Paul Ruttan), even if in somewhat mechanized form.
The pilot project is scoffed at—and nearly derailed—by OmniCorp’s resident ultra-macho military man Rich Mattox (Jackie Earle Haley), who sneers that human emotions will only get in the way of robotic efficiency, but Norton responds to the problem by inserting a program to override Robo’s Murphy qualities without his realizing that’s happening. The result is a smash hit with politicians and public, though Clara and David sense changes in Alex that make them wonder whether the man they know and love is still to be found within his new getup. Of course, Norton comes to have serious reservations about what he’s done, while Sellars is willing to resort to any enormity to save his company and his hide.
Screenwriter Joshua Zetumer does his best to keep what’s happening clear, though he can’t paper over plot holes like the fact that Clara, after telling Sellars she wants nothing more to do with him, shows up—with little David in tow, no less—to confront him just in time for the final confrontation with Robocop, only to become the family at risk and thus an incentive for Alex to fight on. Director Jose Padilha, making his U.S. debut after helming a few notable action flicks in his native Brazil, uses his considerable skill in staging fights, chases and gun battles to conceal such narrative glitches, and he certainly takes advantage of the many opportunities Zetumer has provided for him to do so. But though the set-pieces are impressively choreographed and cinematographer Lula Carvalho has shot them well, they can’t help but have a been-there, seen-that feel.
Nor does Kinnaman make much of an impression. He’s generally a stoically formidable presence, but little more than that, and his scenes with Cornish and Ruttan are bland. The Robocop suit doesn’t help; he just comes off looking like a fellow walking about in a rubbery suit, to which sound effects (creaking limbs, loud footsteps) are added to give an impression of heft. (There are a couple of cool CGI moments when the pieces of the robotic addenda are removed to reveal what’s actually left of Murphy, though.) Keaton proves a typically slimy villain, overdoing things in his usual fashion, and Haley isn’t appreciably better. The most interesting character by far, in fact, is Norton, whom Oldman invests with a surprising amount of shading and nuance. His performance is so good that one wonders whether he shouldn’t be the central figure here. Jackson’s pontificating telecaster makes good use of the actor’s bellowing voice and smugly menacing visage, though the Fox-ish News parody is too obvious to be much fun. Technically the movie is fine, though it doesn’t manage to create much of a futuristic feel, apart from the OmniCorp labs; the cars, for example, look pretty 2014.
Verhoeven’s “RoboCop” spawned a couple of awful theatrical sequels, as well as a TV mini-series, a single-season live-action regular series, and even an animated series (not to mention games and videos). One can only hope that this new version won’t give rise to a similar slew of inferior progeny.