Saturday, February 22, 2014


One's ability to enjoy Jose Padhila's re-imagining of Robocop will probably be in direct proportion to how well one can forget the original. It is not a bad film by any means, and compared to the string of recent remakes, reboots and relaunches, it is probably near the top of the heap, but when put next to Verhoeven's sharp, satirical and eerily prophetic 1987 masterpiece, it is inferior in almost every way.

The plot, in broad terms, is essentially the same: in the near future, tough Detroit cop Alex Murphy is killed/critically injured, given a second chance at "life" as a cyborg police officer and eventually undergoes an existential identity crisis as he takes on the corrupt corporation that built him. It is in the particulars that the film establishes its differences: Murphy's wife and son play a much bigger role this time around, the suit's new design -- obviously influenced by the Iron Man franchise -- is sleeker and a somewhat dull all-black rather than the bulky shiny chrome of the original, the story still stops occasionally for media/exposition breaks (though rather than a news broadcast we are treated to amusing talk show clips with an alarmist Bill O'Reilly-like host) and while the first one dealt with issues relevant to the 80's (the rise of corporate America, the privatization of public institutions, the militarization of the police, the slow bleeding of our nation's economic resources, etc), this one, while still tackling some of the same issues, emphasizes more contemporary concerns (drone warfare, America's foreign policy, big brother-like surveillance, the increasingly blurred line between human beings and technology, etc). The whole thing is intelligently and competently done. All of the elements are in their proper place, but the whole enterprise feels... well, mechanical. While the first Robocop was infused with a thorough (and at times surprisingly moving) humanity, this Robocop so often feels like it is, much like the protagonist at various points in the story, on auto-pilot. It moves along at a relatively brisk pace but still seems to lack the energy or conviction of its predecessor. I found it holding my attention without really engaging me emotionally. The CGI, like all modern Hollywood movies, vacillates between very good and extremely cartoonish and the action is diverting without being especially thrilling (which is ironic given that this Robocop can both run and jump rather than just lumber along slowly like the original did).

What it's also missing, unfortunately, is the original's wicked sense of humor. Verhoeven's film was not only provocative in its socio-political observations and highly astute in its criticism of American culture, it was also REALLY damn funny. I kept waiting for a sequence with the biting hilarity of the original's Ed-209 eviscerating a hapless executive in a board meeting demonstration gone wrong. In fact, the film in general is pretty sanitized (one could even say "neutered"), drained not only of its namesake's extreme violence but also of its wild and unpredictable, but not incoherent, shifts in tone. This Robocop is very "safe" and "middle-of the-road" and it is reflected in its family--friendly PG-13 rating (whereas the original was forced to make cuts to receive an R instead of a dreaded X)

The cast is good: old Commissioner Gordon Gary Oldman and even older Batman Michael Keaton play the ying and yang of Omnicorp (the company that creates Robocop) and both are very effective. It's nice to see Keaton in a major movie again -- he reminds you of his ability to play a convincing, but not cliched "mustache-twirling" villain -- while Oldman brings nuance and complexity to his more sympathetic role of the Dr. Frankenstein to Robo's "monster." Jennifer Ehle, Jackie Earl Haley, Marianne Jean Baptiste and Samuel L. Jackson (a bit more restrained than I would like to have seen him) are also highlights. The weakest link, alas, is the actor playing Murphy/Robocop. When he's in the suit with the visor down, he works just fine, but since this version has him spending far more time with his face visible and his "humanity" present, it becomes painfully clear how welcome an actor with the charisma and eccentricity of Peter Weller would've been.

In the end, Robocop is a decent enough remake. I would buy it for a dollar, but I'd still buy the original at any price.