Expectations are understandably low for a PG-13 remake of Paul Verhoeven’s ultraviolent 1987 sci-fi action masterpiece RoboCop. It does not seem possible that a more kid-friendly version of the story, especially one with franchise aspirations, could retain any of the original film’s mordant multimedia satire, much less its gleefully bleak vision of a near-future urban hell on Earth.
So perhaps this shiny new RoboCop is the best RoboCop we could possibly expect at this moment. Director José Padilha (the Elite Squad films) definitely has a gift for stylizing boot-level action scenes, and that plus a game cast of character actors and shimmery new special effects (the “cutting edge” effects in the original already looked moth worn by the mid-1990s) is almost compelling enough to forgive that the film crumbles in the third act.
The most disappointing aspect is the cleanliness of Padilha’s moral lines, nothing like the schizophrenic satire of Verhoeven’s RoboCop, which blurred the boundary between decrying sadism and psychotically reveling in it. This RoboCop spends so much time exploring the sensitive-dad side of its cyborg peacekeeper protagonist that we’re practically into the third act before the story starts. It often feels like a standard origin story, expanding elements of the character you never cared about.
Of course, Verhoeven’s film was a movie for the Reagan era, a vision of corporate sleaze and moral sloth as the new American order. Padilha and screenwriter Joshua Zetumer (the original’s scribes Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner are also credited) adroitly update the story for the Bush-Obama era of global terrorism, pre-emptive strikes and drone warfare. RoboCop spends nearly as much time in the streets of Iran and the factories of China as it does in Detroit.
In fact, one of the best sequences in the film is the opener, where we see unmanned American robots (some of which look a lot like the ED-9000 from the original) and drones patrol the streets of Tehran. The scene is all at once a biting political commentary, a human drama, and a brilliant showpiece for Padilha’s prodigious talents as a director of action and special effects. Strikingly presented as a pretitle grabber, it immediately lifts hopes that somehow these filmmakers got a new-fangled RoboCop right.
For a while, that hope is well-founded. Best known for his part on the TV show The Killing, Swedish actor Joel Kinnaman stars in his first action lead as Alex Murphy, a Detroit undercover cop investigating a crime kingpin. When Murphy is nearly killed by a car bomb, his wife (Abbie Cornish) is persuaded by the robotics corporation OmniCorp to volunteer his remaining body parts (basically a hand, most of a head and some assorted internal organs) to become America’s first robot cop.
The sick gag in this version of the film is that the American voters will tolerate gun-toting androids trampling the civil liberties of foreigners, but regard their presence in the homeland as invasive and inhumane. OmniCorp controls the military robots from the opening sequence, and we learn that they operate in every country except for the United States. They think that putting “a human in the machine” will mollify the public and open up the American market, and Murphy becomes their guinea pig.
Samuel L. Jackson plays a political talk-show host who is really a propaganda-spewing puppet of OmniCorp, and it’s a fairly good showcase for him. At this point, Jackson is such a shameless scenery-chewer that he should only be allowed to share the screen with holograms and/or motherfucking snakes. His scenes also form one of the many embedded allusions to the original, which used fake TV news stories to great effect.
After that opener, though, Padilha’s RoboCop uses TV news media in much the same way as most other movies: as a hackneyed device for delivering plot details and underlining themes you’re considered too stupid to comprehend on your own. Other direct allusions to the Verhoeven version—including a reappropriation of Peter Weller’s “Dead or alive, you’re coming with me” tagline—are mostly distracting, and just pile extra baggage onto a picture that could have succeeded on its own merits.