Robocop (United States, 2014)February 12, 2014
2014's iteration of Robocop is a kinder, gentler version of Paul Verhoeven's 1987 sci-fi orgy of violence. The storyline has been trimmed and reworked to allow it to slide under the PG-13 bar. That means a brutal torture/murder sequence is no more and a key battle has been reduced to a series of shaky-cam quick edits that transforms the fight into a largely incoherent series of flashes and bangs. All things considered, however, director Jose Padilha's Robocop reboot does some of the things a good remake should do: it retains the central ideas and themes of the original while updating and rearranging the narrative to lose a derivative feel.
Robocop is set in the near future. Drones manufactured by OmniCorp, a conglomerate owned by Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), have become one of the dominant world-wide forms of police but are barred by law from being used on U.S. soil. Recognizing the potential revenue being lost, Sellars embarks upon an ambitious project: create a cybernetic cop that combines the brain and heart of a man with a robotic body. His choice for "Robocop": Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), a morally upright Detroit policeman who is critically injured when his car explodes. With the permission of Murphy's distraught wife, Clara (Abbie Cornish), Sellars' chief doctor, Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), builds a new body that looks like a cross between Iron Man and a Cylon. With his emotions carefully controlled and a "kill switch" in place (in case he should turn against his "owners"), Robocop is introduced to the public and becomes an immediate sensation.
As a science fiction action film, Robocop is mostly successful, although some of the subplots - such as Robocop's investigation into Murphy's "murder" - are underdeveloped. Aside from the one battle where the fighting is obscured to mute the violence, the combat sequences are effectively choreographed, including one special effects-laden scene in which Robocop takes on a group of imposing drones. The climax is surprisingly low-key but effective nonetheless, validating the perspective that action movies don't always have to conclude with a loud bang.
2014's Robocop is more character-based than its predecessor. Unlike in Verhoeven's version, Murphy's family isn't informed of his "death"; he is therefore given the opportunity to re-connect with his wife and son after his conversion. Their continued relationship represents a major plot element and this dynamic represents a shift from the one in the 1987 movie, where Murphy, with the help of his new partner, spent much of the running time attempting to remember his past. Here, it's about reconnecting with his lost humanity and finding a path forward.
Robocop wants to be more than an action-oriented robo-romp. It wants to provide social commentary. To that end, Padilha provides clips from a TV talk show hosted by ultra-conservative Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson), who champions Sellars' drone program and lambastes gutless politicians who back the law banning their use. This is intended to evoke the timeless debate of how much freedom people are willing to surrender in the name of greater security, but Robocop doesn't offer anything that's new or especially thought provoking. Its points are disappointingly shallow and its attempts at satire pale in comparison to Verhoeven's edgy jabs.
The cast represents an intriguing blend of familiar faces and relative unknowns. Stepping into Peter Weller's boots is Joel Kinnaman, the Swedish-born actor who made his name in The Killing. Jennifer Ehle, who played Elizabeth Bennett to Colin Firth's Darcy two decades ago, is Sellars' dour assistant. Abbie Cornish, the Australian character actress whose filmography is a patchwork of offbeat and intriguing titles, plays Murphy's wife. Michael Keaton leaves Batman far behind to turn up the sleaze as Sellars. Gary Oldman has the most three-dimensional role, although a significant dose of ambiguity might have made Dr. Norton more interesting. Samuel L. Jackson uses his strident reputation to good effect portraying Novak - even getting an opportunity to provide a "Samuel L. Jackson moment."
Robocop had a long and divisive journey to the screen. Originally, the remake was to be helmed by Darren Aronofsky. When he departed the project, the well-received screenplay was gutted by incoming director Padilha, who later complained of massive studio interference. Any behind-the-scenes conflicts are ultimately no more than a curiosity because the finished version, while not in the same category as the original, represents respectable midwinter entertainment. Although Robocop may not quite reach its goals, it at least aspires to be more than just another dumb, special effects-focused blockbuster, and it deserves credit not only for that but for holding the viewer's attention for two hours.
Robocop (United States, 2014)
Cast: Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Abbie Cornish, Jackie Earle Haley, Michael K. Williams, Jennifer Ehle, Samuel L. Jackson
Screenplay: Joshua Zetumer, based on the 1987 screenplay by Edward Neumeier & Michael Miner
Cinematography: Lula Carvalho
Music: Pedro Bromfman
U.S. Distributor: Columbia Pictures