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'Robocop' Review: Tin Man With No Heart

By TK | Film Reviews | February 14, 2014 | Comments ()


robocop.jpg

Robocop truly is an amazing film. It’s a hyper-violent fever dream with several different, surprisingly complex agendas at play. It’s a brutal satire that touches on themes of crime and punishment, societal disaffection, the dangerously erosive effects of the constant march of industry, and it even serves as a religious allegory. It’s got a solid lead, a wickedly clever — if somewhat wacky — central story line, but also a series of backstories dealing with family and partnerships and the very nature of what it means to be human. It’s absolutely ridiculous for much of its gonzo, over-the-top craziness, yet it’s also a film that will be fondly remembered and well-regarded for decades.

What’s that? Oh, no. I was talking about the 1987 version. The 2014 version, released this week, is somewhere between mildly entertaining, and drearily mediocre. Starring Joel Kinnaman (“The Killing”) as Detective Murphy, the new film takes the basic premise of the original and, to its credit, adds a few innovative tweaks. Unfortunately, as a narrative it’s a drag, a simplified Robocop For Dummies that tries to update itself and deliver a message, but fails to ever dig deep enough to ever feel any kind of emotional resonance.

In this new version, robots have become the new soldier, used exclusively overseas for peace enforcement. Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), the CEO of the company that manufactures them, wants to bring them into the US as unmanned police officers, but the tide of public opinion is thus far against him. As a result, he waits until loving family man and good cop Alex Murphy gets terribly wounded in a retributive bomb blast, and then seizes the moment to create a Robocop. From there on, it covers some of the same ground as its inspiration, albeit in less inspired fashion. Robocop is a loose cannon from the start, due to the influence of his human emotions, so Sellars and his chief physician, the ambitious but guilt-wracked Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman, easily the film’s standout performance) opt to chemically and surgically alter his brain functions, making him, in essence, more robotic. This causes strife between him and his loving, if anxious wife Clara (Abbie Cornish, who spends 80% of the film in tears) and his partner Lewis (Michael K. Willaims taking over the part played so well by Nancy Allen in the original). It’s not until Murphy learns that his child has been deeply affected by his new, remote persona that he begins to regain his humanity, eventually solving his own attempted murder and leading him towards the internal corruption and influence that could ruin everything.

From a technical standpoint, Robocop is a solid action flick. The look and motion of the suit is faster and more fluid than the clunky plodding of the original, and Kinnaman gamely works at bringing emotion when its called for, but also doing a fine job when it requires expressionless, dispassionate glowering. The other robotic elements — both friend and foe — are well rendered and feel remarkably believable and include some clever callbacks to the original. The action sequences are engaging without being over-edited, but often feel more workmanlike than perhaps necessitated by the genre. There’s a lack of flash, of panache, that worked in director Jose Padilla’s previous films like Elite Squad and its sequel, both gritty, vividly realistic takes that endear themselves to a more grounded, visceral approach. However, in a futuristic action piece involving robots and supercops, it ends up feeling more pedestrian.

Ultimately, it’s a lack of real inspiration or, for lack of a better word, heart that undoes the film. Robocop is a dreadfully humorless exercise, full of a darkness and violence, but without any sense of soul to ground it. The original was an glorious demonstration of 80’s excess, a cocaine-and-violence fueled punch in the face filled with gruesome effects and black humor. Little of that humor is found here, and the only real attempt at social commentary comes at the hands of Samuel Jackson as a reactionary media blowhard. Unfortunately, his role is so at odds with the rest of the film that each scene feels too tonally jarring to ever be effective. Padilla and screenwriter Joshua Zetumer instead opted to play it straight, making what they hoped would be a serious — capital “S” — action movie. The problem is that this Robocop never really connects with the world around him. He shares too few scenes with his wife, with his partner, with anyone except for Oldman’s doctor. Instead he stomps around and gets into frenetic gun battles, but never really sells the audience on the man inside. That man inside, whether its Verhoeven’s bizarre Christ-figure or simply a man being torn up by what he’s become, by the family he’s left behind, by his own damnation, is what will make the character relatable, and instead there’s nothing to compel the audience to find any sense of empathy.

There’s a line at the end of the 1987 film, right after the climactic battle at a steel mill, where a terribly injured Nancy Allen gasps, “Murphy… I’m a mess,” and a physically devastated Murphy tiredly replies, “They’ll fix you… They fix everything.”








That single moment contained so much emotion and intensity, such grimness and exhaustion, that it perfectly demonstrates up what’s missing from the remake. Instead of genuine anguish and frustration and fear, Padilla’s climax shoots for cheap emotional manipulation (involving Murphy’s wife and kid instead), with soft murmurings of “everything’s going to be alright”. Instead of a sense of gallows humor, it opts for a finish that’s almost routine in its abundant cliches. It’s uninspired paint-by-numbers action clad in a mechanical suit, bereft of humor or nuance or cleverness. Robocop is a decent enough action film, I suppose, but it’ll never hold a candle to its inspiration. Ultimately, it will end up in that ever-growing scrap heap of forgettable remakes.


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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not


  • St

    I surprisingly liked new Robocop. Didn’t expect much. But I enjoyed it. It was good action movie. It wasn’t stupid or too unrealistic. It felt believable, that all of that could happen. Joel Kinnaman was actually hot with short hair, when he was unshaved at the beginning of the movie. I used to him the way he looked in The Killing. But he was Action Hero here. He was completely different in The Killing. ,

    Yeas, I agree that maybe heart was missing. You know you don’t think about it after you walked out of the cinema. This is the movie that you saw, you were not disappointed, you did not regret that you saw it but you forget about it 5 minutes after you left theater.

    It was solid movie. That’s how you describe it. Not amazingly good and not bad. In the middle.

  • Guest

    The director's last name is "Padilha" and not "Padilla". He's Brazilian, not Spanish (not that a Brazilian necessarily must have a Portuguese last name).

  • Bobbs3k

    I went in thinking it would be a horrible trainwreck of a movie, and left liking it, so um yeah.

  • I sat down and watched the original Robocop before writing an essay on it this morning. I forgot how much fun it was, especially if you appreciate good gallows humor. The newscasts, tv show, and advertisements are my favorite part of the film now. They serve as a Greek Chorus, a means for the audience to see just how much of a shitty world the lead character lives in, helping to reinforce the narrative of decadence and corruption.

  • For me, the thing that made the first Robocop work was the fact that Murphy was, essentially, dead to everyone he'd known. His attempts to recapture his humanity were tragic, because it was forever lost to him, yet that provided the catalyst for him to truly seek justice for the obscenities perpetrated on him and society. At least, that's what struck me back when I watched it on the day it came out. The violence wasn't cool; it was horrific (and really satisfying after the turn). I think I'll go rent the first one and skip this.

  • They really missed the subtlety of the original. The house tour, where he begins flashing back on his family, was probably one of the most underratedly heartbreaking scenes put on film. We were literally in Murphy's shoes, witnessing the realization he was having. It was brilliant.

    The one good thing about these remakes is that they highlight how much we generally take the originals for granted.

    They had a honestly pretty cool looking update to the armor that kept the two-tone color scheme, but they ended up going all black for no satisfactory reason. I think that comparison encapsulates pretty much every review I've read on this movie so far.

  • It's alarming how prescient the original film is. 25 years ago it would've been unthinkable for a private corporation to own and run a prison as a for-profit venture. Now it's a reality we see becoming more and more prevalent.

    The portrayal of the news media in the original is also rather prophetic, with the smiling newscasters conveying terrible information with a smile, as if to say, "Sure there's a government threatening to use a neutron bomb but here's a commercial for a board game called Nukem".

  • Guest

    THIS.

    *Murphy's death in the original is still one of the most disturbing things I've seen in a movie and it gives me an icky feeling just thinking about.

    His attempts to recapture his humanity were tragic, because it was forever lost to him, yet that provided the catalyst for him to truly seek justice for the obscenities perpetrated on him and society.

    **The above is the reason the sequels were such total fails and I had so low expectations for this one. None of it was explored and I'd be happy to pay to see it.

  • TK

    Wise decision.

  • blacksred

    I will always remember the original Robocop because it was the first movie we watched on our brand new VCR. We invited the neighbors over and had pizza.

  • Some Guy

    It's an excellent review, but one glaring omission, in my opinion, is any mention of Peter Weller in the equation of what makes the original better than any remake might hope to match.

    He's a vastly underrated actor, for proof see Robocop, and I see it more of an issue of the fact that Weller so encapsulated and defined the role, that only someone who was meant to play the role could have played the role. Who is Joel Kinnaman? I don't know, but he ain't no Peter Weller.

  • BlackRabbit

    Also, Screamers. Peter Weller was awesome in that flick.

  • lowercase_ryan

    What I really want to know is if I see this, will I love Holder less?

  • Ryan Ambrose

    I suppose being considered the second best Robocop film ever made should be in itself a consolation prize.

    Though I suspect "not as bad as RoboCop 2 & 3" won't be a quote featured on the Blu-ray cover.

    How can this be from the same man who brought us the Elite Squad films? I'm willing to bet it was a case of a studio interfering with a foreign director's vision on his first international picture instead.

  • Some Guy

    Let's not get crazy here.

    Robocop 2 might have its shitty moments, but it still has some awesome moments, too. The last 30 minutes of that movie and the Cain/Robocop 2 animation are worth the price of the movie and the crap that comes with it.

    Plus, it's directed by the guy who directed Empire Strikes Back, so it's got that going for it, too.

    But Robocop 3? Good fucking lord, burn it. Burn it with fire.

  • space_oddity

    Seriously, I had hopes for this, since the Elite Squad movies are so much awesome.

  • el_mediocre

    Also saw it on release date. As an action flick, I'm okay with it.

    But it's not the original and never would have been at the PG-13 rating. I'd be interested in seeing what kind of tweaks show up if the film gets an unrated release, though I seriously doubt it'll change a whole lot.

    As others have said, entertaining but pretty dry. I chuckled at a couple of things, but there's nothing close to the bite of the original.

  • Salad_Is_Murder

    He never asked for this.

  • Al Borland's Beard

    Would you buy it for a dollar?

  • Sara_Tonin00

    Oh, you're mean. I thought my guy friends were in for an actiony treat this weekend.

    Also, my first thought was the RoboCop was riding a RoboPony in the header pic. But I'm sure that's not the case, boo.

  • Salad_Is_Murder

    Robocop Unicorn Attack should totally be the next adult swim game.

  • Guest

    I'd totally see it if there was a RoboPony.

    *I would have been more inclined to see it if it kept the R rating.

  • Saw it on Wednesday. It's okay action fare. But that's clearing only the basest of lines.

    You know what I missed? The fun. Kurtwood Smith chewing scenery as Clarence Boddicker was fun. ("Come on, Sal! The Tigers are playing...TONIGHT! I never miss a game.") His crew of bad guys were fun. Seeing Robocop and Lewis take them down was fun.

    This was extremely dry for all of its cool effects. The best it could muster was Jackie Earle Haley playing "If I Had a Heart"

  • You can't forget Ronny Cox as Dick Jones.

  • Rob

    "Can you fly, Bobby?"

  • "Well, give the man a hand!"

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