The idea of remaking RoboCop, director Paul Verhoeven’s classic 1987 science fiction satire, is not inherently a horrible one (there, I said it). The original is a stone-cold genre masterpiece, for sure, and a perfectly realized film in many ways. But it’s also nearly 30 years old, and while its themes remain surprisingly relevant today, the concept is sturdy enough to encompass new, even more contemporary ideas while updating them with state-of-the-art modern visual effects.
At first, Brazilian director Jose Padilha – best known to film aficionados for his crime thriller Elite Squad and its sequel, Elite Squad: The Enemy Within – seems to want to do just that: make a RoboCop for the 2010s and beyond. But as the film lumbers from its more interesting first half into its messier and more humdrum second hour, the story and movie devolve into more conventional action beats and an unnecessarily convoluted narrative that doesn’t follow through on its earlier ambitions and contains a series of questionable character and story choices.
The film opens with Samuel L. Jackson as a Bill O’Reilly-type right-wing gasbag who hosts a TV show that serves as little more than a front for military propaganda – in this case, making an argument for using robotic drones to patrol America’s crime-ridden streets. But the ploy goes awry when a live broadcast of a supposedly peaceful drone security check of a Tehran neighborhood (yes, in this future we have invaded Iran) takes a horrific and decidedly not-ready-for-prime-time turn, casting public and government sentiment against the drones.
But drone maker OmniCorp and its CEO, Raymond Sellars (a slippery Michael Keaton) are not easily stopped, so when his drones are lambasted for taking human emotion out of the equation, he simply decides that there must be a human being inside the robot. Enter good Detroit cop Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), blown nearly to bits in an assassination attempt by a street-level arms dealer. After getting permission from Murphy’s wife (Abbie Cornish), Sellars deploys scientist Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) to transform Murphy into a synthesis of man and machine.
Murphy – who, unlike in the original film, retains all his memories and identity – is at first despondent and rejects his new form. His emotional state also inhibits his ability to fight crime effectively, until Norton – at Sellars’ request – uses chemicals to dampen Murphy’s emotions and makes him into the super-cop that everyone wants, turning the public tide toward putting more cyborgs on the street. But as RoboCop begins rooting out not just crime, but corruption within the police force itself, a larger agenda comes into play that could once again threaten what remains of Murphy’s life.
As I said earlier, the first half of the film is the most effective and timely with its direct references to drone warfare, the growing militarization of the police, and the increasing integration of human beings with technology. This Alex Murphy never loses his own identity or memories, and while his slow reclamation of them in the original was poignant, letting him retain them leads to interesting new questions about how much of a role humanity can play in the increased mechanization of, well, everything. Kinnaman – whose big-screen presence is not the most inviting, to be honest – is at his best in these scenes, grappling with seeing what little is left of his real body and trying to reconnect with his family (who were all but absent in the 1987 film).
It’s when the plot introduces the dampening of Murphy’s human responses that things begin to go pear-shaped. For example, if his emotional levels can be lowered easily with nothing more than an injection, can’t they be raised again when he’s off-duty? The whole thing smacks of a contrivance to just move him closer to the action-oriented RoboCop of the first film, but a montage of him cleaning up the streets suddenly makes us realize that this the first time we’ve actually seen any crime in Detroit in the entire first hour of the picture. The 1987 film portrayed the city as plunging headlong into lawlessness and chaos, giving us some context for why RoboCop was needed. This time all we get is Jackson’s Pat Novak telling us that American urban centers are badly in need of better protection, but we never get that sense that things are spinning out of control.
Once Murphy is in full RoboCop mode, the movie comes off the rails. Yes, Padilha directs the action sequences pretty well (one in a darkened warehouse is striking), but the story becomes needlessly complicated with a secret plan to undermine Murphy and just get those damn drones on the street. It’s all kind of murky and involves an abrupt transition for one character, who goes from a sort of mushy ethical stance to outright villainy in the blink of an eye, that seems tacked on just because the story needed a moustache-twirler at that moment (no one here, however, approaches the jolly venality of Ronny Cox or Kurtwood Smith in the original). Also jarring is Murphy’s later ability to somehow overcome his programming through sheer force of will, thus depriving us of anything as brilliant as the “you’re fired!” moment from the original.
We don’t want to keep comparing the two, and it should be said that this new RoboCop is far from terrible or incompetent filmmaking. It’s also got a great supporting cast, even if some of them outshine the leading man. Best of all is Oldman, who imbues his Dr. Frankenstein role with some layers and complex feelings about his handiwork. Keaton is ably assisted by Jay Baruchel and Jennifer Ehle as the kind of smarmy marketing execs you can imagine putting up insensitive promotional posts on Twitter. Sadly, Nancy Allen’s Officer Lewis from the original is turned into a more generic male partner (played by Michael K. Williams) for Robo, while Cornish is wasted in an underwritten role that mainly requires her to look grief-stricken.
What’s missing in the larger sense is not just the graphic violence (this remake is rated a safe PG-13) but the gleeful and subversive sense of anarchy that permeated the first movie. Like his equally satirical Starship Troopers (1997), Verhoeven’s RoboCop wickedly suggested that we are so far gone that fascism might be our only way out of a desperate situation. While Padilha’s RoboCop starts out like it might ask some tough questions about where we stand today, it never follows through on them and doesn’t provide enough context to do so.
One scene in which RoboCop/Murphy scans a crowd at a public gathering, instantly accessing all their records and assessing each person’s threat level, almost begs the question of what we might do if a walking, talking NSA was stomping through the streets. We never really get an answer, and given the public’s apathy toward so many of today’s very real political issues, the audience might not even care. 2014’s RoboCop is slick, shiny Hollywood filmmaking that, ironically, ends up as RoboMovie, draining itself of both a point of view and humanity.