"RoboCop" is the latest film remake to hit theaters -- on a weekend that saw no fewer than three 80's movies getting modern adaptations -- giving the Paul Verhoeven sci-fi-action classic a shiny new hardware upgrade. While it is leaps and bounds better than the previous attempt to duplicate a Verhoeven masterwork (2012's dreadful "Total Recall"), this new "RoboCop" lacks much of the heart and soul that made the original so great. That's rather ironic for a film about what differentiates man from machine.
The original "RoboCop," released in 1987, was a razor-sharp satire of 80's excess, corporate greed, and mindless media, all concealed beneath an ultraviolent, B-movie aesthetic. Brazilian director José Padilha ("Elite Squad") had the thankless job of creating a film that lives up to the original's legacy, while finding some new insight to the story. No easy task, and it's a testament to him, as well as screenwriter Joshua Zetumer, that the film comes as close as it does to delivering on that promise.
Padilha and Zetumer tiptoe into the debate over drone warfare, opening the film in Tehran, where mega-conglomerate OmniCorp is supplying the U.S. military with robotic soldiers to keep the restless population under control and give American officers the ability to settle any potential uprisings with the push of a button. It's this early section that gives us the film's most biting bit of commentary, so it's a shame when it's almost immediately abandoned in favor of the sort of slickly produced, bloodless, CGI violence that's required of all modern action films.
OmniCorp desires to bring its robo-product to America, but it needs a way to sell it to the general public, which remains leery of a police force made up of weaponized machines without a conscience. The corporation's CEO, Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton, seemingly having a ball), enlists the help of robotics scientist Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) in developing a way to put a man inside the machine and give the public the illusion that there's something with a moral compass still in control.
Enter Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman, "The Killing"), a noble Detroit policeman and family man, who is nearly killed after a car bomb halts his investigation into a generic bad guy and the corruption within the police force that allows that bad guy to run free. Near death, Murphy is the perfect test subject for OmniCorp's program. Norton melds what little is left of the young cop onto a cyborg body, making Murphy the face of the future of crimefighting and a pawn in OmniCorp's ongoing PR campaign.
Zetumer's script adds an intriguing element to the story in allowing Norton to give his creation the illusion of free will by adjusting exactly how much control Murphy is allowed to exert over his mechanical body -- while still giving Murphy the impression that he's always running the show. But test runs show that human characteristics like fear and instinct make their robocop imperfect, and it's no surprise when OmniCorp execs find they get better results from their creation when the "Murphy" setting is turned down to "low."
Of course, Murphy's will proves stronger than expected, and he begins to overwrite his system by starting to investigate the circumstances that led to his murder. Unfortunately, that plotline is by far the least interesting part of the film, and Padilha seems to know it. Still, the variations in humanity allow Kinnaman to portray a significantly less stoic RoboCop than Peter Weller in the original film, which adds audience sympathy to the character's plight.
The film also wrings an extra bit of emotion out of an increased focus on Murphy's wife (played by Abbie Cornish) and child, who Verhoeven's film ignored almost entirely. In general, the performances in the remake are a marked improvement over the original, which had more than its share of stiff actors and clunky dialogue. Here, the supporting cast is loaded with ringers. In addition to Keaton's scenery chewing and Oldman's surprisingly nuanced performance, Jay Baruchel, Jackie Earle Haley, and Jennifer Ehle all manage to make great impressions as various OmniCorp lackeys.
Padilha's action sequences are competent if unremarkable, save for a nifty gunfight lit only by blasts of machine-gun fire. The over-reliance on CGI and computer-assisted camera moves make the fights resemble a video game. The problem is not helped by the fact that we often see the battles through RoboCop's computerized POV, which displays a counter letting him know how many enemies he's neutralized.
The film does contain a few clever bits of humor, like one character's mockery of Murphy through the use of a rather iconic song, and the presence of Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson, especially Samuel L. Jackson-y), a Bill O'Reilly-esque newscaster who provides commentary throughout the film. But these moments are few and far between, and the overall tone is more dour and serious-minded than a film about a robot super cop has any reason to be. The missing sense of fun damages the film the most, and that's a shame: a version combining the improved performances of this film with the dark, topical satire of the original might have been something special.