Every movie should be approached with an open mind. Ideally, be it a film from Martin Scorsese or Friedberg and Seltzer, a reviewer should be going in without expectations, ready to play it as it lays. But it’d be dishonest to pretend that that was the case going in to “RoboCop,” because it’s a long-delayed remake of Paul Verhoeven‘s 1980s cult action sci-fi classic that, based at least on early buzz and previews, does without much of what made the original special — the satirical bite, the extreme violence, the hand-crafted effects et al. As such, even the most even-handed person could be forgiven for going in with a heavy heart, especially with the smell of the abysmal “Total Recall” redo still lingering like a fish head behind a radiator.
So it’s as surprising for me as it is for you to report that the 2014 edition of “RoboCop,” helmed by Brazilian filmmaker Jose Padilha (“Elite Squad,” “Elite Squad: The Enemy Within“) is much, much better than it looks. It’s far from an absolute triumph, sure, but it’s significantly smarter and sharper than you’d give it credit for going in, with a (mostly) committed cast (mostly) having some fun with it, and an admirable commitment to character and ideas, over and above action and effects. It might not be worth mentioning in the same breath as Verhoeven’s original, but it’s at least in the same circulatory system.
The premise is more or less the same as the original film, with a few subtle tweaks. In near-future Detroit, mega-corporation OmniCorp, headed by visionary CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) has taken our current reliance on drones one-step further, with a series of robots essentially replacing American soldiers abroad, as shown in a brutal, Bigelow-ish opening sequence set in a U.S-occupied Tehran. But despite the efforts of blowhard Fox News-esque TV newsman Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson, with his Samuel L. Jackson dial turned all the way up), the American people are reluctant to use Omnicorp’s droids at home, worrying that they lack the human element.
What they need is a a robot with a dose of humanity to lead the way. Enter Detective Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), whose investigations into gun-running and possible corruption among his colleagues have led to him being car-bombed into near-oblivion. His wife Clara (Abbie Cornish) tearfully consents to the procedures OmniCorp want to try to save his life, and Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) sets to work, transforming Murphy into RoboCop. But will anything be left of the man he used to be once they’re done?
If there’s one thing you can say about the shiny new version of “RoboCop,” it’s that it’s better at the Robo than at the Cop. Despite the two “Elite Squad” movies being some of the more memorable movies in the genre in recent memory, Padilha seems actively disinterested in the police side of things, and Murphy’s investigations, and the way they’re picked up in his new guise, are by some distance the least interesting parts of the movie, with villains, corrupt cops and warehouse shootouts so generic that they could be taken from a lower-tier Steven Seagal movie.
There’s also not much to distinguish Murphy, as played by the generally charismatic Kinnaman, from a dozen other movie cops (though you could easily make the same remark about Peter Weller in the original — it’s never exactly been a gift of a part). Nor does it help that none of the action is particularly inspired, perhaps bar a muzzle-flare-illuminated shootout that’s reasonably good value; Padilha brings much of the same docudrama energy to lensing the shootouts, but there’s a distinct lack of imagination in the blocking.
Fortunately, there are plenty more ideas elsewhere in the film: every moment spent with OmniCorp, and their tinkerings with Murphy, finds the film really shifting into gear — it’s infinitely more effective as a straight-up sci-fi movie than as a tentpole actioner. When we first meet Oldman’s character (an intriguingly ambiguous Dr. Frankenstein figure), he’s helping an amputee guitarist try to play his instrument with his new robotic hand. Oldman tells him that he needs to shut down his emotions to let the machinery work properly, and the musician replies, “I need emotion to play.” It’s a key to the central issue of the movie — at what point is Murphy still the person he used to be, and at what point does he just become another piece of software? OmniCorp’s ability to literally turn up or turn down his amount of free will is one of the script’s (credited to Josh Zetumer, with some uncredited work by James Vanderbilt) best new additions, and actually gives Kinnaman something to play too.
It helps that the best performances all come from the corporate side of things too. Oldman’s as reliable as ever, while Keaton channels Steve Jobs into a particularly ruthless kind of corporate dickhead. In fact, we could have happily just watched an entire movie of board meetings between him, Jennifer Ehle‘s ice-queen number two, Jackie Earle Haley‘s Napoleon-complex-suffering head of security, and Jay Baruchel‘s yuppie marketing guy. They’re all playing four hugely enjoyable variations on giant assholes, and prove genuinely hissable adversaries (even if the movie botches their eventual comeuppances).
Though perhaps it shouldn’t surprise given Padilha’s previous work, the movie does not pull its political punches. Jackson’s Bill O. Reilly-esque talking head might not be the most subtle or organic way to link the movie’s sci-fi elements to today’s debates about drones and surveillance, but it makes up for it with the ferocity of its indictment. The closing lines in particular are as about an audacious a conclusion for a blockbuster as we can remember, in terms of indicting the target audience. One suspects that Verhoeven would approve, even if he might not like much of the rest of the movie.
It’s these moments, despite the elements that he doesn’t pull off, that makes you glad that Padilha was behind the camera. There’s blandness there in places, certainly, but he’s cribbing from the right material — “District 9” and “The Dark Knight” are the obvious calling cards — and displays a lot of bold, smart ideas, interesting cuts (the introduction to Murphy post-explosion is ingenious, and the revelation of his true state genuinely horrifying), and even a couple of inspired shots (watch for the way he frames his hero’s reunion with his son, framing out Kinnaman’s head to only include the robotic parts of his body).
There are plenty of issues here, of course. The generic some-Canadian-city locations let down the world building elsewhere, and the PG-13 nature of the action gives it a defanged feel, not least when compared to the original (the insistence on eye-rolling callbacks and in-jokes doesn’t help the comparison — just try and restrain yourself from openly groaning when someone says “I’d buy that for a dollar”). The film slows to a halt every time it tries to do something “badass” — an action sequence that lets Murphy show off his moves for the first time is especially dull — and not every cast member is used properly, with Cornish wasted on a wife character so thankless you’re surprised she’s not played by Mireille Enos.
But there are enough rough edges and interesting kinks across the two-hour running time that you come out forgiving it for the more generic elements, though we’ll acknowledge that the flaws might stick out more on a second viewing, when you’re not just pleasantly surprised that the whole thing isn’t a stinking mess. But for now, if there had to be a “RoboCop” remake, it might as well have been this one. [B-]