Any movie that tries a lot harder than it needs to is all right in my book. And that’s exactly the case with RoboCop, an impressive reboot of the Paul Verhoeven classic that, much to my delight, fires on all cylinders, blending furious action, strong acting and an inventive script to create a film that uses familiar parts to build something sleek, smart and entirely capable of going toe-to-toe with Verhoeven’s original.
I’m well aware that fans of the original RoboCop will balk at that praise, call it unsubstantiated and probably even berate me for entirely missing the point, but hear me out. What Verhoeven’s film did fantastically was address the political hot topics and concerns of its time (declining industry, privatization, etc.) by playing them out in a futuristic, but believable, setting. And while José Padilha’s PG-13 remake arrives without the original’s enticing ultraviolence, it does very much the same thing, and it does it very well.
Instead of taking on postmodernity, the new RoboCop goes global. The film’s terrific opening scene aims squarely at foreign policy in the Middle East; in its chillingly believable future, mighty corporation OmniCorp has equipped the U.S. military with highly effective law enforcement robots, which the military has employed to almost entirely eliminate the use of human soldiers overseas. In Tehran, the robots have terrorized civilians into submission, remotely scanning every person for both weapons and emotions that would even suggest a coming confrontation. “Peace be upon you,” they proclaim in grating, hollow voices. How they handle a suicide bombing designed to draw attention to the brutality of a robot regime is both terrifying and highly plausible. Fittingly for a movie about the conflict between man and machine, the first clear target is the Obama administration’s use of drones.
However, Joshua Zetumer’s script doesn’t cool its jets there. Political pundits, the callousness of big business, privatization of the media, technology addiction, outsourcing of industry, it’s all there. I won’t spoil all the delicious barbs and philosophical quandaries that emerge, but Padilha and Zetumer should be commended for not leaving the brain out of this remake. In RoboCop‘s future, the illusion of free will isn’t confined to protagonist Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), trapped in a robotic exoskeleton; the concept is everywhere, from the sense that everything is for sale, to the savagery of politicians and a public swayed by the media, to the immense power held by OmniCorp.
The film’s most enjoyable invention by far is Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson, perfectly cast), a raving, often hilarious pundit not wholly unfamiliar to viewers of Fox News. Wild-eyed and full of fire, Novak keeps a smile in his voice even as he ruthlessly twists the truth to his own ends and eviscerates any who stand against his rhetoric. Though Novak never comes into contact with the other main players, his appearances on right-wing commentary show The Novak Element provide some of the film’s most biting, subversive satire, and he never feels superfluous.
Padilha and Zetumer also hone the main story arc, following Murphy’s transformation into RoboCop after he barely survives a car bomb, to serve their greater themes. When the cop awakens to discover that most of his body has been replaced by mechanical parts, he struggles to remain himself, despite OmniCorp’s underhanded attempts to drive all humanity out of their ‘product.’ Murphy is, in some sense, the ultimate consumer, having become one with the technology of the times, and it’s certainly interesting to watch Padilha and Zetumer draw parallels to today’s consumers, increasingly chained to their devices. Government surveillance and the inevitable surrendering of freedom also plays a key role, as RoboCop’s abilities give Murphy a Big Brother-like omniscience.
When it comes time for the film’s flashy action sequences, Padilha handles the camera quite well, though there’s a few regrettable instances of shaky-cam and an overuse of Call of Duty-style perspective. Still, most of the film’s action looks fantastic, and none of it feels gratuitous. Fans of Padilha’s Elite Squad films will be pleased with the in-your-face nature of many of the action-driven sequences – and given that he had a bigger budget this time around, the director certainly upped his game. A fast and furious shoot-out in a warehouse at the beginning of the film’s third act is particularly impressive. That said, the people behind this RoboCop put their story and characters first, and it really shows.
Kinnaman, so great on AMC’s The Killing, had one hell of a challenge in taking on RoboCop. Performing almost entirely with just his face, the actor demonstrates extraordinary dramatic depth, particularly during one devastating scene when he is confronted with the remnants of his human body. In early scenes, he quickly makes Murphy a character you can root for, but his soulful interpretation of the man inside the machine keeps RoboCop from drifting too far into hard sci-fi territory. There’s an emotional undercurrent to his performance that keeps you invested in his fight for freedom, even when only his mouth and chin are exposed. His Murphy may have a few less quips than I would have liked, but that’s in keeping with the remake’s serious, cheese-free approach to his journey.
Gary Oldman is also terrific as Dr. Dennett Norton, the scientist behind RoboCop. Oldman fully fleshes out the man’s emotional turmoil, as well as his frustration at being just as much a pawn of OmniCorp as his cyborg creation. Though he initially comes across as the good scientist, Oldman isn’t content to sit with that categorization. Instead, his Norton is a troubled, conflicted and morally indecisive character, which makes him much more interesting to watch.
Meanwhile, Michael Keaton is clearly having a blast as the dastardly CEO of OmniCorp, biting into his hammy role with a gusto that really makes it work. Jackie Earle Haley does sneering menace exceptionally well as a vicious military tactician, while Jay Baruchel and Jennifer Ehle both wring some laughs out of their despicable OmniCorp-affiliated characters. Michael K. Williams, as Murphy’s former partner on the force, suffers from an underwritten role but still gets the film’s best one-liner. And last but not least, Abbie Cornish does surprisingly strong work in the small role of Clara Murphy, Alex’s grieving, angered wife.
RoboCop isn’t a perfect film. Some of the characters get short shrift, especially Antoine Vallon (Patrick Garrow), the vaguely evil crime lord behind Murphy’s accident. The film powers into its final act a little too quickly, and one small part of the story is glaringly illogical. However, the amount of stuff RoboCop gets right is remarkable. As an action blockbuster, it’s agreeably streamlined. As a satire of modern America, it’s sharp and well-constructed. And for a remake, it’s both incredibly innovative and distinctive.
It’s rare that I’m left wanting to see a sequel to any movie, let alone a remake, but Padilha and Zetumer really went above and beyond with RoboCop. Provided that fellow ’80s remake Endless Love doesn’t slaughter it at the box office this weekend (a disconcertingly real possibility), RoboCop will likely spark a franchise, and I’m entirely on board with that. People may not consider this remake a classic on par with Verhoeven’s in the decades to come, but I’d opine that it’s every bit as clever and enjoyable as the original, just for a different generation, one that has grown up with the Iraq War, iPhones and Bill O’Reilly.
Don’t be fooled by critics who whine about the unnecessary nature of a RoboCop reboot – this updated version is vastly entertaining, distinctive and intelligent. It’s a shiny new ride that’s every bit as good as it looks.