Don’t hate RoboCop because it’s a remake of a beloved sci-fi classic, hate it because it’s a tepid and blandish spin on the original film that thinks the best way to re-energize the concept it to go all the places that first one didn’t. Sometimes you do get it right the first time, and sometimes doing things because you can isn’t really a good enough reason for you to go through with it. Having said that, there are some interesting ideas in the new 2014 RoboCop, and some very interesting actors who try to realize them, but essentially this new Cop is a B-effort for a C-movie.
Let’s try and keep the comparisons to a minimum, but I will begin by saying that Joel Kinnaman brings something different to the role of Alex Murphy. Peter Weller as Murphy was just far too good a guy with his easy smile, laid back manner, and the little trick with his side arm that he learned in order do to impress his kid. Kinnaman is more intense, and more driven. That might be because his cause is more personal as Murphy is blown up in a car bomb placed by a flunky of an arms dealer Murphy and his partner Lewis (Michael K. Williams) are investigating, thus forcing his transformation into RoboCop. It’s not like getting your hand blown off and then taking about 20,000 rounds of ammo in every possible body part, but then again, this is a PG-13 effort.
“This time, it’s personal,” would have been a good tag line for this RoboCop. Not only is Murphy actively trying to solve his own murder, and not only does everyone know that RoboCop is Alex Murphy in OmniCorp’s PR stunt to sell drone technology to police America, but there’s a whole subplot about how Murphy’s transformation affects his family. Abbie Cornish, who’s a perfectly good actress, gets saddled with the thankless chore of being the put-upon wife, and then later being the Damsel in Distress.
But let’s rewind a bit. The movie is juxtaposed like this: In the near future, America is using robots to police the world to the extent that is impossible with a human military. The one problem is that no one wants robots policing at home, but since when does an American corporation take no for answer? The Steve Jobs of this robo-age is Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), who recruits one of his best scientists, Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), to come up with a scheme to integrate a human component into their otherwise flawless machine. Guess what they come up with?
This is where RoboCop feels like it’s on the cusp of having something interesting to say. Murphy’s performance as a robo-warrior is below par, so the OmniCorp techs starting stripping more and more of his humanity to make him a more effective policing machine. Of course, Murphy starts to take back his own humanism with great Herculean effort, and despite all the safeguards, man proves mightier than machine. What’s fascinating is that Murphy is treated more like a machine than some of the actual machines. Rick Mattox (Jackie Earle Haley), a tactician with OmniCorp, is constantly calling Murphy “Tin Man,” but enthusiastically endorses the robots as “my guys.”
The flip side is the excruciating socio-political detail that the movie goes into. A PR hack played by Jay Baruchel puts RoboCop before the focus groups, who like the idea of a transforming police officer very much by the way. There’s also a whole of political manoeuvring on the part of Sellars, whose trying to overturn the law that keeps his robots off American streets. Part of that is a character named Pat Novak, which is basically Bill O’Reilly played by Samuel L. Jackson in what’s tantamount to a Simpsons-esque parody of the Fox News anchor. The allegory gets strained pretty thin, and the plot gets lost in the film’s fascination with how Sellars can curry favour with the public and how he can use the letter of the law to defeat the spirit of the law. The RoboCop remake does for action movies, what Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace did for space movies, it becomes so pre-occupied with the political machine it forgets that there’s a story to tell.
Perhaps that’s why the action in RoboCop feels so uninspired. Everything that can be hated about recent action movies finds its way into director José Padilha’s approach, the camera movement is frantic and jittery, and the scenes are staged a little too much like a video game. As we approach the climax, and Murphy learns the real plot and intentions, I’ll be damned if I can figure out what the hell is going on. We spend all this time with Pat Novak, the corporate buffoons of OmniCorp, and Murphy’s loving family, but as we get close to the two hour mark it seems like Padilha and Co. realized that they needed to somehow catch all those juggling balls they were tossing around, and they ended up dropping more than a few of them.
In short, RoboCop is a failure, but a noble failure. If anything saves it, it’s the stellar cast that Padilha put together. Kinnaman plays both sides – Murphy and RoboCop – well, as Oldman fascinatingly works to the side making you guess as to his character’s motivation, did he create RoboCop to give a man a second chance, or did he do it because he could? You never know till the end. Haley and Keaton are interesting characters, not overly villainous, but definitely unsettling. Still, the movie was missing compelling motivation. The beauty of the original was how all the elements came together in the end, from Clarence Boddicker and his seemingly mindless gang of thugs, to the corporate rivalry between Dick Jones and Bob Morton. In the remake, hey, stuff happens.
Looking back Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop was oddly prescient with the collapse of Detroit under the weight of widespread corruption, economic erosion and lawlessness. I’m not sure where Padilha was looking, but it was at a Detroit that’s full of life and people, and looks nothing like the rather damning documentary Detropia with all the urban decay of the Motor City in 2014. In other words, what this RoboCop lacks is vision. It’s the epitome of a modern Hollywood film, take a well know name, use ingredients from other successful films – like, say, Iron Man and The Dark Knight – and make it all look slick. I’d buy that for a dollar, but not much more than that.