Published Feb 12, 2014There's a reason the people of Detroit so overwhelmingly approve of the idea of erecting a Robocop statue in their downtown. The original 1987 sci-fi classic, set in a near-future Detroit, had become a little too prescient for residents as widespread corruption catering to corporate greed took precedence over public interests. A man in a metal suit who overcomes moneyed interests in pursuit of justice and his own vindication is just the kind of character Detroiters can get behind. All that is to say that Robocop — the character and the original film — was more than just a clever conceit.
So even before a single frame was filmed, this remake was understandably under fire. Would they even set it in Detroit? Would original director Paul Verhoeven's signature satire and black humour carry over? How would they outdo the over-the-top violence of the original? The short answer: yes, sort of and they're not even going to try.
Brazilian director José Padilha's first English language film sticks to the nuts and bolts of the original. Officer Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is maimed in a brutal gangland attack only to be resurrected by defence contractor OmniCorp as a cyborg charged with protecting the city. Of course, his corporate owners' motives aren't purely altruistic.
But the devil is in the details, and that's where Padilha and screenwriter Joshua Zetumer miss the mark. In the original, Murphy is brutally tortured and left to die before experiencing waking dreams as doctors fuse what's left of his body into the machine. The audience experiences this trauma with Murphy, giving us a better understanding of his inner turmoil. Saddled with a PG-13 rating, this film casts him as the victim of a car bomb, and by the time he wakes, his remains and consciousness have been fused into a mechanical body. We experience his rehabilitation, but not the accident that puts him there in the first place.
Murphy's wife and child, played by Abbie Cornish and John Paul Ruttan, get more screen time than in the original, and provide the motivating factor behind Murphy's deviation from his programming as a peace officer. But in trying to solve his own murder, Padilha and Zetumer paint Murphy as a lone wolf driven by self-interest, rather than a duty-bound hero. Moreover, despite a couple nods to the Red Wings and a number of aerial shots of downtown Detroit, Padilha makes no effort to sell viewers on Detroit's plight. Shot in Toronto and Vancouver, Robocop circa 2014 could take place anywhere.
Kinnaman is nothing but a pretty face in a suit, and fails to convey Murphy's lingering mental anguish, but the film is rounded out by an impressive group of supporting actors: Gary Oldman provides the film's moral compass as the doctor who rebuilds Murphy, while Michael Keaton, Jay Baruchel and Jennifer Ehle make up OmniCorp's deliciously slippery executive. You almost want them to win. Only Samuel L. Jackson is miscast as a bombastic right-wing pundit whose on-air screeds offer the only real Verhoeven-style satire. Unfortunately, Jackson's character lacks any edge and comes across as a lame sendup of Fox News.
Robocop functions well as a nice slice of late-winter entertainment — the special effects are excellent and the action scenes don't get bogged down by the usual CGI clutter — but it fails to differentiate itself enough to justify its existence.