Written by Joshua Zetumer
Directed by José Padilha
The remake of RoboCop is a largely different beast to Paul Verhoeven’s original film, and is all the better for choosing not to be a slavish re-creation minus the trademark ultra-violence. The 2014 take may be less gory and far less cartoonish, but there is an actual satirical fire at its heart, just with different targets to those Verhoeven concerned himself with. If taken on its own terms with what it tries to do, rather than being glibly decried for everything it doesn’t retain from the original, there is a fair amount of merit to be found here, even if it doesn’t completely stick its landing at all times, nor ever reach the highs of its source material.
In 2028, the Detroit-based OmniCorp company has received considerable acclaim – at least from the overtly right-wing, as represented by Samuel L. Jackson’s Bill O. Reilly-esque TV host – for its law enforcement robots used overseas; referred to as drones, the machines, the Verhoeven holdover ED-209 among them, are glimpsed in a prologue about an objective called Operation Freedom Tehran. The problem the corporation, headed by Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), faces is that a bill prohibits artificial beings from enforcing the law in the United States, and they are effectively losing money every day they can’t make a profit from the world’s richest nation. The solution they come up with to bypass the ruling: put a man inside a machine. Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) becomes that man, after 80% of his body is severely burned and most of his limbs lost in a car explosion, an attempted hit on his life courtesy of a local drug lord. That kingpin doesn’t happen to be Clarence Boddicker, as Murphy is the only character retained from the original film, though the surname of Nancy Allen’s cop is transferred to Michael K. Williams’ supporting role.
Sellars persuades OmniCorp scientist Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) to help weaponise the man, and much of the film’s early material focuses on the technical development of Murphy and how his brain chemistry and body receptors are manipulated; Kinnaman, getting to retain his whole face for most of the feature, gets a lot more emotional material to work with than Peter Weller arguably did. This version of Murphy retains much more of his humanity from the offset, though this is revealed to be an adjustable attribute. When Murphy’s vulnerability proves too disconcerting for the marketing team about to reveal their “product” to the public, Norton is forced to activate a biological suppression of the very humanity OmniCorp is counting on to sell their robotics to America. That being said, his immediate efficiency helps Murphy catch on with the public, even if his wife (Abbie Cornish in a thankless part) and son are left in the lurch when Alex undergoes zombification.
In an unfortunate twist, the film’s downfall is when it too becomes something of a mindless, familiar zombie in its third act after the welcome breathing space and interesting ideas peppered throughout its preceding stretches. José Padilha got the directing gig for this on the basis of his Brazilian Elite Squad films, and though the action set-pieces are actually surprisingly few in this film, they are fluid and confidently directed; this extends to sequences not even concerned with combat, such as Murphy’s desperate escape from a Chinese OmniCorp factory in which his new body has been constructed. Come the third act, however, which some reports suggest may have been entirely rewritten and re-shot in post-production, and the coherence levels drop in terms of cinematography and editing, as well as the accompanying screenwriting that creates the climactic chaos.
A more persistent nagging issue throughout the film is that, although you certainly get a look at a lot of criminal activity, Detroit as featured doesn’t exactly fit certain descriptions bestowed upon it. There is talk that RoboCop – only ever labelled as such once, by Lewis – has “brought peace to this country’s most violent city”, but the locales almost never scream as such. It never comes across as a place torn apart by crime, more a largely pretty picture with a few bad apples in it; one of the film’s more curious pleasures is actually how nice some night-time driving sequences look. This issue could perhaps have been alleviated by setting more of the film on the streets rather than having so much of it take place in labs and boardrooms, but then those places are more relevant to the 2014 take’s primary targets.
Marketing is of a bigger concern in this version, with Sellars and his team – including Jennifer Ehle’s ice queen lawyer and Jay Baruchel’s campaign hotshot – obsessing over creating “a product they can love” when talking about beings whose primary purpose is meant to be protecting people. There’s a dig at a certain blockbuster franchise when it’s suggested kids will love RoboCop’s transforming aspects, while elsewhere a line about having a release date to meet gains an extra layer when the film’s own production delays are taken into account.
Surveillance, too, is another big concern, with Murphy having seventeen years of CCTV footage uploaded into his brain, and access to live feeds from such cameras at his mind’s disposal; perhaps it worked out for the best that the film is now coming out after the NSA scandal fully broke, especially since the final scene involves Jackson’s host swearing and ranting about whistleblowers in front of a giant American flag, telling people to stop whining. Verhoeven and the original film’s screenwriters may not care much for the other ways in which their baby has been re-birthed nearly thirty years later, but they might enjoy that one final note the new child ends on. Of the two RoboCop-lite films of the last two years, one imagines they might prefer Dredd overall.
— Josh Slater-Williams