Assuming you go into the RoboCop reboot assigning no value at all to the title and franchise history, it would be fair to walk away feeling that it’s an altogether serviceable exercise in sci-fi action filmmaking by people who are clearly very good at their jobs. It is fun to watch and by no means bad or boring. The ticket price is entirely appropriate given the amount of diversion supplied by the sleek, fast-paced dialogue and excellent cast. It will not ruin an otherwise good date.
Of course, such neutral praise is impossible given the legacy of Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 original, a masterpiece of dark, biting satire and self parody masquerading as a brainless, run-of-the-mill Hollywood crowdpleaser. For most films, “fine” is plenty to justify its existence, but an aggressively average reboot of RoboCop that fails to act as a prism of the original’s radiance has something very wrong at its core.
Yet the biggest problem with RoboCop isn’t that it strays from its source material. It’s that it lacks the courage to go anywhere with its new ideas. Both films tell the story of Detroit police officer Alex Murphy (1987, Peter Weller; 2014, Joel Kinnaman), who would have been brutally killed in the line of duty had it not been for OmniCorp, who harvest what’s left of his brain and body to create the unstoppable RoboCop. Also present in both is naked media bias, which goes from glibly pro-establishment to full-on Bill O’Reilly for this iteration. But the reboot’s intermittent monologues—delivered dutifully yet forgettably by Samuel L. Jackson—are so spot-on with reality in their nationalistic cheerleading that they barely register as parody. The politics have correctly changed with the times for the reboot, from cocaine-fueled visions of a libertarian hellhole to today’s three-way marriage between corporations, media, and government, but director José Padilha apparently confuses the potential for commentary with the commentary itself as he raises many ethical and political issues that go bafflingly unaddressed.
Swedish actor Kinnaman (Easy Money, The Killing) has yet to be fully appreciated in the US, but he does his best to lead—and mostly succeeds—an all-star cast that includes Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Michael K. Williams, Abbie Cornish, Jackie Earle Haley, and Jay Baruchel. Yet far too many characters end up feeling redundant or unnecessary, as opposed to the original film’s complete lack of fat. The relationship between Kinnaman as the crippled Murphy and Oldman as the doctor who gives him his new body is interesting enough to be its own movie (and includes one of the most effective scenes of body horror in decades), but it constantly gets derailed by the larger, less interesting plot. Williams as Murphy’s partner is way underused, Cornish as his wife is one-note, and Keaton is either miscast as OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars or his ambiguously evil role needed to be completely rethought.
RoboCop marks Brazilian director José Padilha’s first American film after finding massive success with documentaries Bus 174 and Secrets of the Tribe, and the runaway hits Elite Squad and its vastly superior sequel. With exposés and dramatically better second installments, Padilha clearly is at his best when he learns from his mistakes or has time to reflect on those of others. With the inevitability of a sequel, Padilha’s track record, and all of the good ideas we see in RoboCop—depiction of the militarization of domestic police, debating the morality of using drones abroad, making Murphy aware of his own identity through it all—the man deserves a second chance to make it right.
ROBOCOP. PG-13. OPENS 2.12