It’s not that the film is a terrible remake of the original 1987 Paul Verhoeven sci-fi action flick. If anything, digital technology and modern F/X make this a much slicker, more efficient action movie.
But the spark is missing. Why did anybody bother?
The new “RoboCop” goes through the same paces as the original and has fine actors in all the key parts including Swedish actor Joel Kinnaman (from TV’s “The Killing”) stepping into Peter Weller’s starring role as a physically destroyed Detroit cop who returns to the force as a nearby indestructible cyborg.
One good thing does repeat: “RoboCop” again marks the American debut of a foreign director who has made an impression with internationally acclaimed films.
In this case, it’s Brazilian José Padilha, who after making the award-winning doc “Bus 174” wrote and directed the hugely successful “Elite Squad” and “Elite Squad 2,” controversial thrillers that focused on the police response to crime and corruption.
And the writers of the first film, Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner, are back with Joshua Zetumer to tweak their original script. The story remains essentially the same although it’s now positioned in a world of drone aircraft fighting terrorism and controversy over the moral implications as well as the efficiency of such robotic combatants.
The political framework is made readily apparent in the fulminations of a Fox News-like pundit, played by Samuel L. Jackson, who acts as cheerleader for the deployment of robotic droids and man-sized robots in Iran and speaks like Stephen Colbert — if Colbert were actually serious about the right-wing nonsense he spouts.
Exposition gets delivered in a ham-fisted manner, but through this news character and other interviews you glean that the U.S. Senate is resisting efforts to deploy on American city streets robots developed by evil conglomerate OmniCorp for homeland security.
This despite the best and most brazen efforts of its CEO, Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), to get around a 70% disapproval rate among Americans over the question of putting emotionless, conscience-less robots on streets as cops.
So when Alex Murphy (Kinnaman) gets blown up in his pursuit of a Detroit arms dealer, the opportunity presents itself to stick what’s left of Alex, his emotional, thinking self, into the latest robotic technology.
A team consisting of OmniCorp’s top scientist, Dr. Norton (a nicely rumpled though sincere Gary Oldman), lawyer (a severe looking Jennifer Ehle) and marketing exec (an insincere looking Jay Baruchel) convince Alex’s wife, Clara (Abbie Cornish), to sign the papers.
In a section that may be more intriguing than the routine shootouts and blasted bodies the whole movie points towards, the film charts Alex’s transformation from barely alive to a human robot.
Along with Alex’s surgeries and initial resistance to his new life, the movie makes clear that giving sentient life to a combat-designed robot slows reaction times and undermines military applicability.
There is much explaining about how Alex’s brain chemistry is tweaked by nightly doses of nutrients, anti-depressants and dopamine that drastically reduces his capacity for emotion and thus increases his effectiveness as a fighting machine.
Ever mindful of the movie’s supposed political/moral stance, the filmmakers try to have it both ways: They want you to lament the ethically unconscionable notion of a robotic police force, where only the “illusion of free will” is sold to the public. Yet, paradoxically, you are meant to root for the hero, the only such RoboCop in the world, to triumph.
This is reminiscent of Padilha’s “Elite Squad” movies that were criticized, not always fairly in my opinion, for glorifying police brutality in society’s important battle against rampant crime.
Another change from the original finds Alex’s partner switched from a strong woman (remember Nancy Allen?) to a guy (Michael K. Williams). Thus more emphasis can be placed on his relationship with an anxious wife and their impressionable son (John Paul Ruttan).
It’s an okay tradeoff — one female character for another in essence — but certainly no improvement.
And so it goes … tradeoffs and shifts of emphasis or tone but still a movie geared for action and only pretending to contemplate deeper societal issues. The action never rises above the ordinary — shot in a kinetic, handheld, music-driven style— and the villains are downright silly.
I won’t give away how improbably high up the corruption goes in Detroit. But let’s think about the main bad guy, you know, the arms dealer who hangs around Detroit, the only city in America patrolled by an unstoppable RoboCop, waiting for a showdown rather than quietly and discreetly leaving town.
Opens: February 12, 2014 (Columbia Pictures)
Production companies: A Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures and Columbia Pictures presentation of a Strike Entertainment production
Cast: Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Abbie Cornish, Jackie Earle Haley, Michael K. Williams, Jennifer Ehle, Jay Baruchel, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Samuel L. Jackson
Director: Jose Padilha
Screenwriters: Joshua Zetumer, Edward Neumeier, Michael Miner
Producers: Marc Abraham, Eric Newman
Executive producers: Bill Carraro, Roger Birnbaum
Director of photography: Lula Carvalho
Production designer: Martin Whist
Visual Effects Supervisor: James E. Price
Costume designer: April Ferry
Editors: Daniel Rezende, Peter McNulty
Music: Pedro Bromfman
PG-13 rating, 118 minutes