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.