RoboCop Review

José Padilha tries his hand at remaking Paul Verhoven's classic '80s flick for a new generation. Let's explore how he did...

rating: 2.5

RoboCop is the second film by Paul Verhoven that Hollywood has decided to remake in the last few years, another of his ultra-violent, satirical action movies that had more to say than the marketing probably let on in the beginning. In an industry where good, original ideas are less frequent with every passing day, the first question is obvious: why? With Total Recall, there was no good answer, even for supposed financial reasons: a cult movie in every sense, it's a film that doesn't naturally invite the idea of a remake. Still, it did make a fair profit at the box office. With RoboCop, the answer to "why?" is more obvious: the character is one of '80s legend, like Conan, or the Ghostbusters gang, and maybe even Indiana Jones. This is property that already spawned a number of sequels, of course, all of which grew progressively worse as the filmmakers involved lost sight of the humour and mockery that was so important to the first installment. So really, it's another in a long line of franchises that Hollywood felt like rebooting simply because it hadn't been rebooted yet - it was just sitting there, after all, and what use is that to anyone?
But there are inherent problems with tackling a movie that was so clearly tongue in cheek, and transposing it to a time and place where the irony is lost. You risk making yourself look stupid, which - in a way - is what director José Padilha has done with this new version (or re-imagining), which stars Joel Kinnaman (Easy Money, The Killing) and places him front and centre in a movie that might as well have been a video game trailer. And surrounding him with veterans like Gary Oldman, Samuel L. Jackson and Michael Keaton (all on autopilot) can only do so much good. The year is 2028 (the original was set in an unspecific year), where there's a political war going on between the multinational conglomerate OmniCorp, who are making a case that robots should be used to police the United States, and a publically-enforced act known as "The Dreyfuss Act," which argues the opposite - that robots are dangerous and cannot make good replacements for human beings. Desperate to give the public a product that they can fall in love with, OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellers (Keaton) devises what appears to be an ingenious plan: fuse robot and man as one. The basic plot points are the same as in the 1987 version, then - dedicated, hardened detective Alex Murphy (played by Kinnaman with little personality, even before the transformation), injured almost to the point of fatality (this time it's an explosion that does the necessary damage), is selected as the ideal candidate for the new man/robot fusion, and is overseen by lead scientist, Dr. Dennett Norton, played by Gary Oldman, who comes to be an ally of sorts. At this point, the movies stalls, with much of its runtime dedicated to detailing the new issues affecting Murphy's family unit (Abbie Cornish plays his wife), and the physical and mental changes that Alex has to go through to become RoboCop.
Sadly, Padilha fails to make any of that interesting. It's near-on impossible to track the "changes" that begin to affect Alex as the scientists tweak and fiddle with his moods and abilities: he swaps personalities on a whim, but because we have not yet had a chance to know him, or to get to grips with the way he was before, this exploration is never anything but confusing. Likewise, the story moves in circles, and fails to make use of several plot points - one of which includes a drug dealer, his organisation and the corrupt cops who are working with them - which might have been intriguing if they didn't ultimately feel like filler. What's more irritating is the action sequences, or lack of. There is not a single action sequence in RoboCop that you will think about afterwards - and what was this supposed to be if not an action movie? Padilha shoots without any sense of rightful camera placement and fails to amount any tension as a result, surprising given that he shot action with great technical ability in his earlier, far more accomplished Brazilian crime film Elite Squad. Whereas that movie had personality, this one feels like somebody was holding the director's hand from start to finish ("No, you can't do it like that, José...). And don't get me started on the PG-13 rating, which only ever brings with it the promise of bland, watered-down action. So Samuel L. Jackson has been brought in, presumably in an attempt to bring a sense of knowingness to the material, but his attempts fall flat because the rest of the movie is played much too seriously. Jackson, who talks directly to the camera - and therefore us - plays the host of a political, pro-robot TV show called "The Novak Element," and occasionally pulls RoboCop out of its stupor, but these scenes feel isolated from those in the rest of the movie - had they played it all with the same self-aware, shouty monologues of Jackson's character, we might have had a movie that was a lot more fun to sit on top of for two hours. And you do sit on top.
The real problem with RoboCop is that it fails to come together into any coherent whole; if the politics are messy and unclear, it might be wishful thinking to hope that there even are any. The original RoboCop sets its targets on an smorgasbord of themes (gentrification, authoritarianism, privatisation, capitalism) and played them against sequences of bloody violence to make the point. Verhoven's skills as a filmmaker - and as an satirist - allowed this to work. Here, there's no sense that Padilha knows what he has on his hands, and no amount of in-jokes about the iconic suit can get us on his side. Which means that RoboCop is - sadly and truthfully - just another in a long line of remakes that fails to justify its existence on almost every level. The Total Recall remake, for all the reasons it failed, at least managed to throw in some good action sequences to give movie-goers something to do - you were disappointed, sure, but you knew that was going to happen anyway; you probably weren't bored. For fans of the original RoboCop, this will likely prove irresistible, of course, so I won't tell you to not go out and see it (but you can absolutely live without it, I promise). Like the robots that the "Dreyfus Act" opposes, then, RoboCop 2014 is bland and eventually boring in ways that only the Hollywood studio system can provide - one can't help but wonder what might have emerged on the other side had somebody in charge took a risk and said: "Do what you like with it - dare to be different" (and we must remember that Darren Aronofsky was once set to helm this). We can only hope and pray that something inspiring happens when they get around to the inevitable reboot of Starship Troopers. But pray as we might, we already know - deep down - that isn't going to happen. Don't we?
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Sam Hill is an ardent cinephile and has been writing about film professionally since 2008. He harbours a particular fondness for western and sci-fi movies.