By Simon Miraudo
February 6, 2014
If you find yourself – perhaps under duress – watching José Padilha‘s Robocop, rest easy in the knowledge that under no circumstances will you end up watching it again. You can rarely say that about any movie with certainty, but I can’t compute a scenario in which someone would ever choose the longer, completely unnecessary, and somehow less socially relevant version over the stone cold classic that inspired it.
Padilha’s flick isn’t totally terrible. (In fact, if remaking Paul Verhoeven‘s still-essential 1987 sci-fi satire, not being ‘totally terrible’ is probably the best a filmmaker can hope for.) Nonetheless, that not even one character gets liquefied after being hit by a car – as memorably occurred in the first – is just one of this new, watered-down take’s many failings. Another is the casting of the bland Joel Kinnaman as Alex Murphy, the Detroit detective who, after digging inside his district and uncovering some corrupt colleagues, winds up blown to smithereens on his front porch. When Murphy’s beleaguered wife Clara (Abbie Cornish) tells her barely-salvaged robohubby, “we’re gonna make it like it was,” you can imagine Padilha uttering that same secret desire to himself, in the hopes of equalling Verhoeven’s feature. Yeah, he doesn’t pull it off.
In this 2014 do-over, nefarious conglomerate Omnicorp takes advantage of honest policeman Murphy’s newly disintegrated form, popping his functioning face, brain, heart, lungs, and (weirdly) one hand into the safe, steely encasing of a crime-fighting droid. It’s a PR ploy for CEO Raymond Sellars (welcome back Michael Keaton, you’ve been missed), who wants to turn public opinion on the idea of robot patrols within the United States, as has been deployed by Omnicorp so successfully in “sunny Tehran.” People don’t trust machines, they trust people, and this newly-minted ‘Robocop’ is the best of both worlds. That is, until genius Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), under pressure from Sellars, slowly removes the lingering aspects of Murphy’s humanity keeping him from becoming the super-efficient officer they want him to be.
Screenwriter Joshua Zetumer has admirably (I suppose) tried to defy our expectations by not sticking too closely to the original’s template. At least not on the surface. This Robocop takes us on a lot of detours, specifically in the first half, where Murphy wakes up with total emotional intelligence, only to have it slowly chipped away over time. It’s a roundabout method of telling the same old story, and we ultimately get to exactly where the ’87 edition wound up, just with an extra twenty minutes added to the running time.
The special effects are crisp and technically competent, however the action sequences are lacking any real tactility. Guns are going off and bullets are presumably piercing both skin and metal, though nothing really makes an impact. You can blame the film’s family-friendly rating. This Robocop was likely not crafted for the sake of making a cutting political comment, but rather to appeal to the kids of today who love their Transformers and Iron Mans and Hula Hoops and the like. Whatever attempts have been made to depict this future dystopia as a scary analogue for our current world are cursory. The cuddly Spike Jonze romance Her was more incendiary.
Swedish actor Kinnaman, apparently very good on TV’s The Killing, is not charismatic or engaging or enigmatic enough to convince us Murphy’s soul, buried beneath Robocop’s muted, mechanical exterior, is so ferocious it could override his Omnicorp-approved settings. He feels just as robotic when he’s in his human state. The casting on all other fronts is superb. To see a former Batman and Commissioner Gordon (Keating and Oldman) share scenes is neat, as is the involvement of Michael K. Williams, Jay Baruchel, Jennifer Ehle, and Samuel L. Jackson (as a loud-mouthed, right-wing TV pundit) in supporting roles. It doesn’t change this undeniable truth: Paul Verhoeven’s works don’t get remade, they get reduced. Saying “it’s better than Len Wiseman’s Total Recall is as faint as praise gets, people.
Robocop is now in Australian cinemas.