After 2012’s gutless revival of Total Recall, it seemed only reasonable to expect a fair amount of fan backlash when the reboot of Paul Verhoeven’s other ultra-violent action classic, Robocop, was announced. With a PG-13 rating and a new suit more akin to a high-tech Batman outfit than the original’s clunky grey number, there were fears that the modern version would botch the memory of the cult favourite. In a way, these worries have been proved prescient, with Jose Padilha’s effort having less in common with the satirical and blackly funny 1987 original than it does with, say, Halo or other such futuristic shooter games. This ‘tin man’ may have a heart, but it is short on brains.
At a basic level, the story has stayed largely the same; good cop Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is mangled horribly on the orders of a mob boss, although this time it is by a car bomb rather than in a hail of bullets, and saved by surgery which mixes his conciousness and likeness with a robotic body. This is provided by the sinister Omnicorp who, surprise surprise, may have less than altruistic reasons for keeping Murphy alive. It’s a decent premise, and having a super-powered police officer grants the potential for some well-done action sequences, even if the constant use of the first person view through Murphy’s visor makes it all feel a little too video-gamey. The (largely bloodless) gunfights are choreographed well, with kinetic and visceral directing work from Jose Padilha, and judged on these merits, Robocop is a functional, occasionally actually exciting, actioner, with a decent driving momentum to these scenes. However, the film’s pacing seems slightly off, with odd or unclear segues between many of the scenes, particularly in the second act.
This issue is compounded by the entirely unnecessary subplot of Murphy’s family relations, which saps interest from the film every time it is addressed, and if there is a more superfluous role than Abbie Cornish’s tear-soaked wife this year, I will be very surprised. It doesn’t help that Kinnaman’s acting is pretty much passable at best, which is fine for the action and interrogation sequences but doesn’t make for particularly riveting viewing during scenes which require emotional heft. In fact, it is possibly the acting that I had the biggest issue with. Both Gary Oldman and Michael Keaton, playing Robocop’s morally conflicted creator and the sleazy Omnicorp CEO respectively, phone it in completely. These are two genuinely excellent performers, but the scenes with them in it are flat and lifeless, rather than the spectacles of acting they should be, although the script doesn’t really shine on the dialogue front – it keeps the plot moving, but little else aside from the nods to quotes or moments from the original. Perhaps all the scenery-chewing supplies were taken up by Samuel L Jackson, continuing his recent trajectory of only really seeming like a proper actor when Tarantino hires him.
But what of the satire that separated the original from its fellow 80s action blockbusters? Suffice to say, all the biting parodies of consumerism are gone, replaced with the obligatory references to US foreign policy in the Middle East. Whilst this does feel like a cop-out, the opening scene (set in Tehran) of suicide attackers facing off against the peace-keeping robots is almost certainly the film’s best, and hides the potential for a much more interesting movie. I can only imagine how different the internet reaction would have been had the studio announced an original robots vs insurgents movie rather than a remake of a beloved property.
Robocop is not a terrible film. It does not stack up to the original, granted, but, judged on its own merits, it functions perfectly well as an action film to rent on an eventless evening. However, in remaking a film you are always inviting comparison to your source material and unless you equal or better it (see: The Departed etc) you’ll make your audience wonder what the point of your effort is. Beneath the generic mediocrity, there are the possibilities of a better film, with a great cast and excellent opening scene, but as it stands, it’s not really something worth rushing out for.
Directed by Jose Padilha
Written by Joshua Zetumer
Starring Joel Kinnaman, Michael Keaton, Gary Oldman