Back when Paul Verhoeven's RoboCop (1987) hit theater screens, ads described its robot enforcer as a "stainless steel unstoppable Clint Eastwood." But the action flick wasn't just Dirty Harry with a robot. Rather, as original cowriter Edward Neumeier noted in a recent interview, it was a "stealth satire." The filmmakers used comic-book hyperbole to depict a near-future urbanscape ruled by corporations — which own the police — and entertained by vacuous infotainment. It feels more prescient all the time.
The surprising news about the RoboCop remake is that Brazilian director José Padilha and writer Joshua Zetumer have embraced that satire. They could have simply retold the crowd-pleasing tale of a Detroit cop who dies in the line of duty and gets resurrected in a metal body to kill bad guys. Instead, they've brought the original's anticorporate tendency to the fore and made it topical. What gets lost in the process, unfortunately, is a strong narrative with compelling characters.
Set in 2028, the film opens with an O'Reilly-esque TV demagogue (Samuel L. Jackson) extolling a new generation of humanoid drones that the U.S. uses to subdue its enemies around the world. Why, he demands, won't legislators allow these peacekeeping machines on American soil?
Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), CEO of OmniCorp, is equally keen on reconciling Americans to permanent occupation by his crime-fighting robots. But voters have silly issues with heavily armed machines making life-and-death decisions. So Sellars and his biotech expert (Gary Oldman) plan a compromise: a machine controlled by the resident brain of a real, live cop.
Maimed by a drug lord's attack, detective Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is the perfect candidate. But he isn't given a choice about rising from the near-dead as a "product." In the film's most memorable scene, Murphy sees what's left of his human body inside the hardware. He begs for death.
Concerned about those messy human emotions, OmniCorp gradually curtails Murphy's free will, leaving him a semblance of autonomy for PR purposes. While it's not enough to fool his wife (Abbie Cornish), everyone else likes the way RoboCop cleans up the city just fine.
This new RoboCop isn't really about the mean streets of Detroit — which come across far cleaner and less mean than they did in the original. It's not as profane, bloody or funny, either. The action feels perfunctory; Murphy's partner, boss and drug-lord nemesis are hazy, ill-formed characters.
Oddly, the movie comes most alive in the sections dealing with OmniCorp's internal politics, where Oldman's modern-day Dr. Frankenstein negotiates between the demands of his boss and his empathy for Murphy. We're encouraged to feel that empathy, too, yet by the film's midpoint, Murphy's head has been messed with so thoroughly that we don't know who or what is inside that helmet.
Kinnaman has more use of his face than Peter Weller did in the original, and he's expressive enough to compensate for his clumping metal body. The problem is that, having set up RoboCop as a drone whose humanity has been ruthlessly programmed out, Padilha and Zetumer can't figure out how to give him back the meaningful agency their plot demands, or how to restore the audience's connection with him. They get to the denouement only by cheating.
It's rare to see a remake that takes chances or has ideas, and for that, RoboCop deserves credit. By the midpoint, in fact, its ideas have swamped its story, leaving the actors to struggle through an incoherent third act. On the upside, at least we know it wasn't written by a script-bot — only humans can screw up this creatively.