From the very beginning, ever since MGM's remake of 1987's seminal action flick RoboCop was announced many moons ago, I've been rooting for it. Yes, that first film is a quintessential piece of '80s arcana. Yes, its alchemy-like mix of satire and ultra-violence remains just as potent today as when it hit theaters. And yes, it's one of my favorite movies. Ever.* Nonetheless, given that studios are rarely wont to let little things like "artistic integrity" stand in the way of exploiting extant IP, my philosophy regarding Robo redux was always, "If you're going to do it, do it well."
Thus, when the Lion brought in director Jose Padilha (of the cult favorite Elite Squad films out of Brazil) to helm the project, I was intrigued. When they signed actor Joel Kinnaman, a dependable presence on AMC's just-canceled series The Killing, to embody the title role, I was onboard. And when they added a panoply of reliable players like Gary Oldman, Samuel L. Jackson, and Michael Keaton to fill out the secondary parts, I started to get downright optimistic. And yet, despite that considerable build-up, this one is a swing and a miss.
Now, don't get me wrong. Padilha and Co. do a lot well, and they do a lot right. But after an intriguing setup and engaging first and second acts that nicely lay out for us how this version of the Robo story will differ from whatever came before, the whole thing collapses in a climactic blaze of explosions, gunplay, and action movie cliches. It's entirely possible the new RoboCop will play well as its own thing to new auds, but by taking on that iconic title, it's inviting comparisons it just can't stand up against. As such, on the scale of unnecessary remakes, it lands somewhere in between the entirely redundant Total Recall and the surprisingly effective Karate Kid.
Following the general template of the '87 edition (enough so for original writers Edward Neumeier & Michael Miner to retain a "story by" credit alongside Joshua Zetumer), the updated RoboCop sees Last Good Cop Alex Murphy (Kinnaman) attempting to uncover corruption in his Detroit precinct. When he gets too close to the bad guys, he's targeted in a car-bombing that leaves him burned, limbless, and clinging to life. Enter conglomerate OmniCorp, whose chairman Raymond Sellars (Keaton) uses the promise of keeping Murphy alive to turn him into the prototype for a law enforcement robot he can then market to municipalities nationwide.
Now, let's talk briefly about why the first RoboCop worked so well, and why it's just as resonant today as it ever was. Beyond the effects and the bombast (and director Paul Verhoeven's biting satire of American consumerism) is a compelling sci-fi fable about the nature of identity, and what happens when one's sense of self is forcibly ripped away. As brought to life by actor Peter Weller, we got to see Murphy move from regular guy to soulless automaton and back to human being (in mind and spirit, if not body). That's the kind of journey that doesn't have an expiration date, and it's a big reason why the original is still so compelling nearly three decades later.
This new version makes some moves toward a similar arc for its lead character, but doesn't really do anything beyond the cursory. A considerable amount of time is spent on Murphy's perspective as he's coached by psychologist Dennett Norton (Oldman) on how to acclimate to his new metal body, but by showing him running and jumping like a superhero (a big upgrade from Robo 1.0), the essential tragedy of his situation is kept at arm's length other than one truly disturbing scene where we see the full, horrific scope of his injuries -- a moment well-played by Kinnaman (who's solid throughout).
As I said, Kinnamon is fine. Keaton is fine. Oldman is fine. In fact, most of the cast is fine, as are the production design and effects. What makes this such a mixed review, then, is how the director's sensibilities are sprinkled in so sparingly. The opening, with Jackson's Bill O'Reilly-inspired TV host Pat Novak showing how military robots have successfully been put to use in Mid-East theaters of war has an edge of dark comedy that, while not in the vein of the first film's boardroom massacre, at least signals a particular authorial voice. I wanted more of that. I wanted Padilha to give at least as unique a point-of-view to this RoboCop as Verhoeven did with his.
The first Robo did so well by wrapping a human story that's both remarkably poignant and hysterically funny inside a big budget blockbuster. People bought their tickets to see effects and explosions, but they responded to the heart and the satire. Of course, the success of that initial film is what led to a seemingly-unending stream of increasingly terrible follow-on movie and TV projects, and that same success is the reason we're here twenty-seven years later even talking about a remake. And to be fair, this new RoboCop is far closer in tone and execution to the original than anything that's come after. Nonetheless, despite Padilha's best efforts, his RoboCop's beating heart has been subsumed by the single-minded programming of MGM's franchise-building machinery. C+
*To hear me and the MovieFilm gang discuss the original RoboCop in greater detail, check out the latest episode below, or download it here:
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