Written by Joshua Zetumer & Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner
Directed by José Padilha
Paul Verhoeven’s science-fiction films RoboCop and Total Recall take place in different environments and eras, but share a similarly raucous, ramshackle, satiric attitude. These films are products of their time, filled with garishly practical effects and grimy, tactile sets, costumes, and character designs; you could reach out and touch his visions of futuristic Detroit or Mars, even though you probably wouldn’t want to spend much time in either locale. The recent Total Recall remake from director Len Wiseman was lifeless and devoid of personality; it assembled a decent ensemble including Colin Farrell and Bryan Cranston, and proceeded to waste them entirely in a world that was intentionally fake and shiny, a green-screen facsimile. So it is faint, if not inaccurate, praise indeed to say that the RoboCop remake, which also boasts a stellar line of performers, is a few steps better, if not an actually good movie.
In fact, it’s because the script utilizes this group of actors in smarter fashion that RoboCop in its new iteration is worth any consideration. The basic plot is still the same—in the Detroit of the future, crime is up and cops are corrupt. Only a few honest officers, like Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) and his partner (Michael K. Williams), are willing to uphold the peace, and for this, they’re shot at by dirty cops and nefarious drug dealers. One night, after putting his son to bed and cozying up to his wife (Abbie Cornish), Alex is blown to bits by a bomb planted underneath his car. He’s revived and put inside of a high-tech robot by OmniCorp, whose CEO (Michael Keaton) wants to convince the Senate to repeal a bill that forbids the use of his robotic drones in the United States. He assumes that making Alex the face of the RoboCop program will help that bill get repealed, and encourages his top scientist (Gary Oldman) to do whatever is necessary to prepare Alex to be anointed a hero by the easily swayed public. But soon, Alex wants to reconnect with his family, as well as solve his own murder, both of which put him in direct conflict with OmniCorp.
Like the original, RoboCop is not lacking in satire, or at least a half-hearted attempt at such wit. The usage of drones in our military—we first see the ED-209 drones in Tehran, checking to verify if Iranian civilians are a threat—is a clear reference to the real-life debates about drones used in the Middle East. And then there’s Samuel L. Jackson, as a blustery media figure who uses his talk show as a bully pulpit to convince the American public of the necessity of using OmniCorp products in the States; when he doesn’t get his way, at one point, he resorts to explosive bouts of profanity. On one hand, this is an emotion that Samuel L. Jackson is expertly suited to express, but it’s also the opposite of subtle. The similarly unsubtle but far sharper and wittier satire in Verhoeven’s RoboCop is either wholly absent from these proceedings or invoked for a cheap joke. (Think of that one line that inspired a famous Twitter spambot account. Yes, that one. It rears its ugly head here for a dumb throwaway gag.) Though this RoboCop isn’t nearly as successful in skewering the military-industrial complex, the film isn’t oppressively dour or painfully unfunny, like that Total Recall retread.
As the eponymous officer, Kinnaman is sufficiently terse, even when he’s not wearing the metallic suit. The character of RoboCop is a somewhat difficult one, as he gets nearly no opportunity to emote underneath his face-guard. The shifty and charismatic performer from the otherwise unremarkable TV procedural The Killing is nowhere to be found here, sadly. Kinnaman does his able best, though it’s the supporting actors who do most of the heavy lifting. Cornish is given the second-most thankless role here (the first goes to John Paul Ruttan, playing Alex’s son); the family aspect to Alex’s life is weakly developed throughout. We’re meant to feel for Alex, but aside from generally finding the plight of a woman who’s lost her husband and has nowhere left to turn sad, the script is either unable or unwilling to provide Cornish with any meaty material. Instead, there’s Keaton, Jackson, Oldman, and other familiar faces like Jackie Earle Haley, Jennifer Ehle, and Jay Baruchel to pick up the slack. Maybe it’s the sight of him in a new movie, but it’s just so good to see Michael Keaton acting again. There are flashes—sadly just flashes—of the same hyperactive villainy he displayed in early roles like Beetlejuice as he unctuously sells his own staff on dehumanizing Alex for financial gain. Here’s hoping Keaton will continue getting better work than just roles in flashy, if hollow blockbusters like this.
RoboCop is lacking in the style that so clearly marked the Paul Verhoeven original, but was there any other way for this remake? Director José Padilha shows some verve and style in how he stages the action sequences, particularly a setpiece where Alex, in the RoboCop suit, faces off against Haley’s dismissive tactician and a cadre of weapon-enhanced robots during a practice run. However, he’s not able to balance out the few action sequences within a reboot of a story whose beats the ideal audience member likely knows by heart. It’s heartening to see this movie not be a wholly painful misfire, as so many remakes are presumed to be. Before it was released, everyone figured this RoboCop had no reason to exist. That this film isn’t an insult is a minor victory, that it will barely blemish the original’s luster a far-too-meager reward. That’s just not enough to make this movie’s existence a necessity.
— Josh Spiegel