“ROBOCOP” (2014; Movie Review)
Well, there goes the review I had written in my head. The new ROBOCOP is not an instant classic like Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 original, but on its own terms—and the fact that it can be judged on its own terms is an accomplishment in itself—it succeeds as a confidently told science-fiction thriller cleverly and intelligently reconceived to reflect modern concerns.
Purists may miss Verhoeven’s ultraviolence and the savagely satirical streak in the original’s script by Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner (who share credit here with new writer Joshua Zetumer, though they had no involvement in the remake); it’s ironic that some of the early criticism of the update is that it’s not like the original enough. One element that does get carried over is the gambit of introducing us to the near future via a television broadcast, in this case a reactionary political talk show hosted by Pat Novak (played by a perfectly cast Samuel L. Jackson in a bad toupee). Through his commentary, we’re introduced to a world in which military robots manufactured by the OmniCorp company, including the familiar ED-209s along with humanoid machines, have become routine presences in every country but the United States, where the “Dreyfus Act” has outlawed them, reflecting the concerns of what Novak deems a “robophobic” citizenry.
Anxious to win over the American public and expand OmniCorp’s empire into its home country, CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) directs his head scientist Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman—fun casting to team these veterans of the two Batman franchises) to create a new cyborg combining robotic precision with a human conscience. The subject is, as before, good cop Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), whose pursuit of a criminal gang whose tentacles reach into his own department leads to his horrible near-death, and he’s brought back to life in a new, steel body.
So far, so much like the ’87 film, with a few updated details. But it’s when Murphy wakes up as RoboCop that Zetumer and director José Padilha truly explore fresh territory. The crux of Verhoeven’s film is Murphy’s dawning awareness of his past identity; in this rethinking, RoboCop knows very well who he was and what has been done to him from the start, and so does Murphy’s wife Clara (Abbie Cornish). The resulting manipulation of his psyche under Sellars’ direction, and how Murphy attempts to maintain his humanity under the duress of his programming, makes this a more humane, in some ways complex film than its predecessor.
It’s also a film very much of its time, reflecting the ways international warfare has changed (OmniCorp’s heavily armored peacekeeping machines are pointedly referred to as “drones” at one point) and how technology has infiltrated our lives; RoboCop can now remotely access any computer system, surveillance equipment or electronic record. Rather then simply rehash the source with a few cosmetic changes, or alter it to unrecognizability, Zetumer has genuinely thought through a new approach to the material, retaining the basic themes while finding a new emphasis that works in the established framework.
Padilha, a Brazilian filmmaker who impressed on the international circuit with his ELITE SQUAD movies, directs with urgency and flair, staging solid action—including an especially impressive warehouse shootout lit almost entirely by muzzle flashes—that doesn’t feel compromised by the need to remain within PG-13 confines, while staying attuned to the needs of his characters. Kinnaman gets to show a lot more of his face than Peter Weller, and compellingly enacts Murphy/RoboCop’s man-machine conflict. Among the supporting cast, Oldman has the most to do and does it with compassion as a sort of benevolent Dr. Frankenstein, while Keaton has fun as a slickly heartless corporate operator. If this ROBOCOP is lacking in any essential area where its inspiration excelled, it’s in the villain behind Murphy’s misfortune; Vallon (Patrick Garrow) is a standard-issue arms dealer who’s not a patch on Kurtwood Smith’s Clarence Boddicker in the ’87 movie. Picking up some of that slack is Jackie Earle Haley as Mattox, OmniCorp’s nasty military tactician.
As refreshingly opposed to the monochromatic dystopia that so many future-shock films take place in these days, Lula Carvalho shoots for naturalism in his cinematography, while making effective use of a constantly moving camera. Inevitably, CGI has replaced the evocative stop-motion Verhoeven employed for his bigger robots, though the new ED-209s have been given a slight herky-jerkiness in homage to their origins, and RoboCop himself is largely brought to “life” via practical means courtesy of the Legacy Effects team. Pedro Bromfman’s score gets the job done accentuating the action, though it lacks the heroic thrust of Basil Poledouris’ original music. The comparison is inescapable due to a reprise of Poledouris’ main themes at the opening and close of the new movie, an unnecessary homage in a movie that, like its central character, succeeds by the end at asserting its own identity.