A film review by Craig J. Koban February 21, 2014 

ROBOCOP jjj
 

2014, PG-13, 102 mins.

 

Joel Kinnaman as RoboCop  /  Gary Oldman as Norton  /  Michael Keaton as Raymond Sellars  /  Abbie Cornish as Clara Murphy  /  Samuel L. Jackson as Pat Novak  /  Jackie Earle Haley as Rick Mattox  /  Jennifer Ehle as Liz Kline  /  Jay Baruchel as Pope  

Directed by José Padilha  /  Written by Nick Schenk and Joshua Zetumer

This newly retooled and reprogrammed ROBOCOP certainly has some mighty big shoes to fill.  

The Paul Verhoven 1987 version looms rather large over it, as it should, seeing as it was a thanklessly meticulous marriage of ultra-violent 1980’s action films and a shrewd and sly social satire.  Yes, ROBOCOP-redux most definitely lacks the sardonic and darkly absurdist humor of its antecedent, not to mention that – with a timid PG-13 rating – it never maintains the original’s fetishistic quotient of splatter and gore.  Alas, if you’re willing to forgive these glaring differences, then there is ample to appreciate in this reboot, as it takes the established storyline and core ideas of Verhoven’s film and mostly takes them in refreshing new directions.  Ultimately, I was surprised by how non-slavish the new ROBOCOP is to its iconic forerunner, to the point where it comes off as standing uniquely on its own feet. 

Perhaps the most inherently unique angle to the new ROBOCOP is how it – much like the original – speaks to certain socio-political fears and anxieties that we have today.  The script this time hones in on the moral quandary of using robots as protectors and enforcers for U.S. interests, which is hammered home in the film’s opening.  Set in the near future, robotic drones have become commonplace to police areas of the world where America wants its influence felt.  Alas, these drones – manufactured by OmniCorp and overseen by its CEO, Raymond Sellars (a uniformly decent Michael Keaton) – are illegal to use on the streets of every American city.  After a disastrous event involving the drones becomes a public relations nightmare, Sellars comes to the realization that his machines lack the heart and soul of a human that the American public seems to demand from its police officers.   

 

 

Brainstorming with his chief doctor, Dennett Norton (a reliably solid Gary Oldman) and his PR team, Sellars decides to embark on an ambitious plan: to put a man inside a machine, which will unfortunately require a police officer that is physical unfit for duty – or life in general – to volunteer.  Sellars finds his guinea pig in the form of Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), a Detroit cop that is critically injured when his car is explodes just outside of his home after being rigged by his enemies.  Given permission from his grieving wife (Abbie Cornish), Sellars and Norton begin the thorny process of transplanting what’s left of Murphy into his new robotic shell, hoping to preserve his human emotions and sense of ethics in the process.  However, when it appears that Murphy’s (now dubbed "Robocop") emotions are clouding his abilities at being a lightning quick dispenser of justice, Sellars forces Norton to install a “kill switch” in Murphy’s brain, which renders him more machine than man.  Complications, obviously enough, ensue. 

Considering my very low expectations going in (I’m a huge fan of Verhoven’s ’87 film), I was frankly surprised by how thoughtfully rendered many of the themes and new narrative angles were in ROBOCOP.  Unlike its predecessor, this version is more compellingly character driven and less action focused, as it spends a considerable amount of time honing in on Murphy’s acclimatizing to his new robotic façade.  In this iteration Murphy’s emotions and memories are largely intact – albeit initially and briefly – and he’s even allowed to visit with his wife and young son post-accident.  The manner that Murphy tries to reconnect with his family as a cyborg was only thinly hinted at and developed in Verhoven’s film, which allows for this ROBOCOP to feel like it's trying to segregate itself and set a new course of interest for viewers. 

The film also has a considerable amount to say on the nature of corporations meddling in government affairs and the pros and cons of using robots in conflicts, foreign and domestic.  This is embellished with a supporting character, Pat Novak (played juicily in pure scenery chewing mode by Samuel L. Jackson), an overbearingly right wing Rush Limbaugh-like TV commentator that spares no words for his pro-robot agenda.  Then there is also the provocative subplot involving the manner than OmniCorp uses Murphy as a public relations puppet.  At first, Murphy’s core humanity is allowed to breathe through his otherwise metal exterior, but when it’s deemed inconvenient for Sellars’ motives, he coerces Norton to subjugate what little of Murphy’s humanity resides, thus leaving the public with the false understanding that a man resides within the machine when he doesn’t.  No doubt, this new ROBOCOP does have some bold and intelligent ideas at its epicenter. 

Yet, there’s still no denying that this ROBOCOP is but a pale imitator - in some respects - of the original, especially in the area of scathing and perverse satire, which the ’87 film had a field day with.  This ROBOCOP most assuredly lacks the amusingly macabre edge that most people euphorically remember from Verhoven's film.  Then there are some of the other film’s subplots, like a convoluted one involving an undercover operation that involves Murphy’s pre-Robocop transformation that tries to pay itself off handsomely later on (it never feels as fully developed as it should have been).  This leads me to Joel Kinnaman in the title role.  He's a fine actor and brings a level of grounded vulnerability and anxiety to the part that perhaps Peter Weller didn’t have in the original (granted, the script for that film didn’t allow for it).  Yet, Kinnaman lacks a certain level of ethereal strangeness that made Weller such an intriguing presence on screen in Verhoven’s film.   

As for the film’s overall look and action?  ROBOCOP is more than competently helmed by Brazilian director Jose Padilha, who certainly gives many of the action scenes a swift clarity and sense of spatial dynamism that oh-so-many modern action film directors fail to accomplish (one sequence pitting Robocop versus a squadron of OmniCorp drones is particularly well orchestrated and packs a strong visceral punch).  Overall, this ROBOCOP seems less inspired by its action scenes and more intrigued with its underlining ideas, which is ultimately refreshing.  Even the climax of the film, involving a showdown between most of the major players, is an unexpectedly low-key affair.  Those expecting something more grandiosely bombastic may be setting themselves up for disappointment.  On the other hand, I admired the film’s relative restraint in its conclusion. 

Yeah…I know…it’s really tough to shake the memory of the Verhoven sci-fi classic when watching this ROBOCOP.  If I had to choose, then I’d very clearly, without reservation, select the first ROBOCOP as the one for people unfamiliar with the franchise to seek out (forget its two exponentially mediocre sequels).  However, the retrofitted ROBOCOP has a bit too much going for it to systematically write it off as yet another witless and pointless redo.  Like good sci-fi, this ROBOCOP seems more at ease with posing interesting questions about its overall premise than with wowing us with glossy special effects and kinetic action (which, to be fair, are in there too).  Going in, I was fully expecting ROBOCOP to be as mechanically rendered as a mindless studio product as its title hero.  To the contrary, this reboot – much like Murphy – has some humanity to it deep down inside. 

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