It is very easy to dismiss a remake of a beloved sci-fi classic, and considering the recent trend of redoing older films that no one has asked for, the new Robocop, regardless of how the final product ends up being, is simply fighting a losing battle. The fact that it’s PG-13, contains CGI and is the second Paul Verhoeven film to get the remake treatment after the terrible Total Recall from 2012, the film is practically begging to be lynched by internet-obsessive moviegoers everywhere. So, putting my own love for the original aside, how is the remake of Robocop?
OK, I’ll elaborate. First positive I can say about this film is that it takes the basic concept of the original film and takes it in a direction, which is more than I can say about other remakes lately. *Cough* Carrie! *Cough* The latest Robocop takes place in 2028, where the conglomerate OmniCorp has robotic soldiers placed in countries around the world to keep everyone “safe.” However, there are none in America due to the Dreyfus Act, which prevents robots from being used in law enforcement. Opportunity comes to OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), when good cop Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is killed by a car bomb placed by the men of arms dealer Antoine Vallon (Patrick Garrow), who is working with a couple dirty cops that Murphy was investigating with his partner Jack Lewis (Michael K. Williams). They decide to use Alex as a symbol for the people of America to rally behind, as a way to sway public opinion, in order to repeal the Dreyfus Act. Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), Omni Foundation Chief Scientist, is put in charge of putting the man into a machine, thus creating Robocop. Shootouts, conspiracies and the loss and recovering of humanity ensue for our hero.
The structure of the film is a bit like that of a superhero origin film, and considering the peak that the genre is at right now, it’s not a huge surprise. The film devotes almost two-thirds of the runtime showing the process of putting Robocop together. Unfortunately, this imbalance results with a slow second act and a third act that feels incredibly rushed. There are some attempts at social commentary with the political talk show bits with the host Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson), as well as the rather blunt metaphor for drones that is being made with the robots in foreign countries. Throughout the film there were moments of brilliance, but the overall impression I had is that the screenplay needed another draft or at the very least a polish in order to fully develop some of the great ideas that they bring up, but don’t really follow through with anything deeper than: “Yeah, our foreign policy kinda sucks.” An idea that was frankly much better explored in Team America: World Police. The rather weak satire would have been fine, if it hadn’t lacked the one crucial element: bite.
Another problem that makes the pacing that much more off is that there really isn’t a villain to keep us in anticipation for a big confrontation. You’d think that Antoine Vallon would be the villain, but after blowing Murphy to bits near the beginning, the film seems to completely forget about him until much later into the film, and another villain comes about in the final act, which I won’t spoil, but it felt rushed, out of character and ultimately anti-climactic.
For me, one of the biggest problems in the film is Alex’s wife, Clara Murphy (Abbie Cornish). Although, it is an interesting idea for the film to explore how the family is affected by Robocop and vice-versa, this is one element that doesn’t quite work. Clara spends almost all her screen time crying or being generally distraught, and it gets old pretty quick. I can tell they’re going for an emotional connection, but despite having so much screen time, her character comes off as extremely under-written, and every time she appears, the movie comes to a grinding halt. It is unfortunate because Cornish gives it her best, but the material does not give her any opportunity to stand out.
Given how most of the film’s issues are at script level, these were the big negatives that I had to get out of the way before I get into positives. Of course, there are some stupid moments and a couple scenes that bordered on the unintentionally hilarious, but that is about where the bad parts end. Brazilian director, José Padilha, does a good a job as he can with the script by Joshua Zetumer, which I want to clarify is far from bad, but needed some extra work. Considering some of the stories about José Padilha and the studio being at each other’s throats, he does manage to make a competently directed and visually interesting feature that has an identity of its own. The action scenes were fun, the few light moments were genuinely humorous, the music was great (and if you’re curious, they do use the original theme), the effects and costume designs were much better than expected and the actors all do a fine job with their roles, with my favorite being Jackie Earle Haley as Rick Mattox, the OmniCorp drone controller and military tactician expert who trains Robocop. It should also be said that Joel Kinnaman does the role of Alex Murphy justice, bringing his own flair to role and shining the most once he is in the suit.
Now, if you’re gonna compare the new one to the original, of course it suffers, but the new one does just enough new things to be judged on its own merits, and as a result, actually makes a decent companion piece to the original, but by no means a replacement. If you keep an open mind, you might just realize that it’s not as bad as you may have thought it would be. There is some enjoyment to be had despite its troubles. It’s not necessarily worth a full price at the theater, but definitely worth a matinee price, or at the very least a solid rental.
Side Note: I highly recommend José Padilha’s previous two films from Brazil called Elite Squad and its sequel, Elite Squad 2: The Enemy Within. Both are fantastic crime dramas taking a raw, gritty and realistic look at the military police of Rio de Janeiro and their relationship between criminals, law enforcement and politics.