RoboCop: Film Review

This remake of the 1987 dystopian classic has a better cast, more meticulous script and, naturally, flashier effects, but it lacks the original’s wit and subversive slipperiness.

Paul Verhoeven's ruthless 1987 sci-fi satire has been broken down, reconfigured and souped up for this flashy remake starring Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman and Michael Keaton from Jose Padilha, director of Brazilian hit "Elite Squad."

Neither the complete disaster some might have been anticipating nor any kind of cinematic landmark, the 2014 remake of RoboCop is a solid piece of mainstream entertainment that honors the legacy of Paul Verhoeven's 1987 original, and is certainly better than the last attack on a Verhoeven film, 2012's Total Recall.

The first feature film in English for director Jose Padilha, whose Elite Squad and sequel Elite Squad: The Enemy Within have been monster hits in his native Brazil and beyond, RoboCop inventively breaks down, reconfigures and soups up the core half-man, half-machine cop-hero conceit. It's as if someone took an original Macintosh and packed it full of the very latest chips and graphics cards -- all very clever but just a tiny bit silly. That said, in some ways, the thoughtful, dense script marks an improvement on the original, and the cast is certainly tonier this time around. What's missing is the original's evil wit, amoral misanthropy and subversive slipperiness, but that shouldn't stop people from spending a dollar (or 15) on the remake -- especially given the lack of competition.

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When it comes to remaking films, there's something of an ethical spectrum. Pick a title no one much remembers, and only few will mind; conversely, dare to repackage a much-loved classic, and there might just be picket lines, or at least flaming tweets, before casting even begins. RoboCop is an interesting case because it falls right in the middle ground: There's enough admiration out there for it, even deep regard, to invoke protective hostility toward the very idea of a remake. But there's also a whole generation that barely knows the original or its decreasingly interesting sequels, except as a brand that spawned the now-common vernacular prefix "robo." Indeed, a statistically unsound survey conducted for the purposes of this review among under-25s who had just seen the original for the first time found that some viewers were disappointed in the "crude" special effects (state-of-the-art in their day), "wooden" acting, and "jerky" storyline, even if the "gore is totally cool."

Although there's plenty of blood splattered and some rather icky close-ups of brain surgery, 2014's PG-13 RoboCop shies away from the violent extremes, f-bombs and bared breasts (always a favorite with Verhoeven) that earned 1987's version an R. In fact, this version is markedly more family friendly, with its emphasis on parent-child relationships, be they between the protagonist and his son or the more symbolic one between the hero and his doctor-creator.

Set in 2028, the script, credited to Joshua Zetumer along with Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner (who also wrote the original film), wafts in the chalky, didactic smell of high-school civics lessons right from the start as a Fox News-like channel, anchored by slick-haired Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson, clearly having fun), covers the deployment of the latest robotic drones in a war-torn Tehran. Unabashedly biased, Novak extols how effectively robotic manufacturer OmniCorp's huge, menacing ED-209 droids and the man-sized EM-208s search a street for potential insurgents – that is, until some suicide bombers go on the attack and the live feed is cut when a droid kills a kid brandishing a knife. Back in the studio, expository dialogue smoothly unfurls how the U.S. Congress is resisting efforts to deploy OmniCorp robots for homeland security, despite the best persuasive efforts of the company's slick CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton).

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Meanwhile, in Detroit, policeman Alex Murphy (Swedish actor Joel Kinnaman, from TV's The Killing) is trying to bust a shadowy gun-smuggling ring with his partner Lewis (Michael K. Williams, from The Wire and Boardwalk Empire) but gets blown to mostly dead smithereens by a car bomb. Sellars sees an opportunity to get around the pending robotic laws by putting a human inside a cybernetic exoskeleton. Aided and abetted by top lawyer Liz Kline (Jennifer Ehle) and marketing exec Tom Pope (Jay Baruchel), Sellars persuades one of OmniCorp's top scientists, Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), to put aside his qualms about weaponizing human beings in order to turn Murphy into RoboCop.

Although the rest of the plot pretty much follows Neumeier and Miner's first go-round in 1987, with Murphy cleaning up the city and then turning his super-duper-Google-Glass-eyes on those who tried to kill him, Padilha and the screenwriting team adjust the spaces between the story beats considerably. There's a lot more time spent observing the technical development of RoboCop in a factory in China, for instance, affording an opportunity for a rather striking shot where Murphy tries to escape, passing thousands of identically pink-coat-clad workers on a huge assembly line, all-organic drones themselves in the service of OmniCorp. Much more of a fuss is made about explaining how Murphy's brain chemistry is tweaked by nightly doses of nutrients, anti-depressants and, crucially later on, dopamine that drastically reduces his capacity for emotion and thus increases his effectiveness as a machine.

Considerable effort goes into beefing up the interpersonal stories that were so cursory in the original version, with a new subplot centered round Alex's distraught wife, Clara (Abbie Cornish), and son, David (John Paul Ruttan), memories of whom resurrect RoboCop's suppressed humanity. It's a shame that the remake changes Alex's partner Lewis from a strong woman (Nancy Allen, who stuck it out through two of the sequels) to a male, but the fact that the character's played by the always vivid Williams makes up for it a bit.

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Indeed, the casting across the board is an embarrassment of riches one wouldn't expect. Oldman brings nuance to Norton, adding psychological flesh on a man not quite as upright as he'd like to think he is. Keaton pitches the menace just right, somewhere between Steve Jobs and Dick Cheney for his alpha-shark villain. Ehle and Baruchel are a hoot as the oleaginous corporate yes-people, Jackie Earle Haley makes for an especially effective thug and Cornish finds a way to bring gravitas to the film's most underwritten key role. Finally, Kinnaman, with his counterintuitive fragile features and spindly frame, provides a strong emotional anchor throughout. April Ferry's costume design and the use of visual effects allows Kinnaman's RoboCop to have his mask up more often than Peter Weller's, giving him something of an advantage if comparing the two performances -- but even so, there's clearly more depth here.

But what most viewers are looking to spend their aforementioned dollars on are the action scenes, and these too Padilha delivers dutifully, favoring the kinetic, handheld, music driven style that made his Elite Squad films so compelling. Director of photography Lula Carvalho provides atmospheric assistance throughout, pushing the grading and lighting to extremes for the film's many nocturnal episodes, while editing by Daniel Rezende and Peter McNulty has an incessantly propulsive drive, although the transitions between scenes crash somewhat. Sometimes it feels like there's just too much stuff going on for the near two-hour running time to handle, but it's never boring.

Like Verhoeven, who caught a lot of flak for RoboCop way back when and even more for Starship Troopers, Padilha's world view in the Elite Squad films has been read by some as quasi-Fascist, particularly for the way the first film seems to celebrate violence, machismo and police brutality. Perhaps in response to those criticisms, Padilha's RoboCop shows an anti-corporate, anti-military, vaguely left-leaning hand, although a token attempt has been made to seem ironic via the mock right-wing TV show. But as result, the end product is nowhere near as troubling and teasing as the original, which always felt like a somewhat stupid movie made by super-smart people. RoboCop 2014 doesn't exactly swap those values around, but it doesn't have the same frisson of ambiguity that made RoboCop such a kick in 1987.

Production: A Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures and Columbia Pictures presentation of a Strike Entertainment production
Cast: Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Abbie Cornish, Jackie Earle Haley, Michael K. Williams, Jennifer Ehle, Jay Baruchel, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Samuel L. Jackson
Director: Jose Padilha
Screenwriters: Joshua Zetumer, Edward Neumeier, Michael Miner
Producers: Marc Abraham, Eric Newman
Executive producers: Bill Carraro, Roger Birnbaum
Director of photography: Lula Carvalho
Production designer: Martin Whist
Costume designer: April Ferry
Editors: Daniel Rezende, Peter McNulty
Music: Pedro Bromfman
Visual Effects Supervisor: James E. Price

Rated PG-13, 118 minutes