Review: The "RoboCop" Remake Is Better Than You Expect It to Be

Is it wrong to fault a film for its lack of coked-out insanity?

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Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

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Director: José Padilha
Stars: Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Abbie Cornish, Jackie Earle Haley, Michael K. Williams, Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Ehle, Jay Baruchel
Runningtime: 1 hour 48 minutes
Rating: PG-13


José Padilha’s RoboCop remake is not an abomination. It doesn’t approach the insane coked-out brilliance of Paul Verhoeven’s original 1987 sci-fi classic about a dead policeman turned into a cyborg lawman, but neither does it tarnish the character’s legacy to warrant disgust and hatred. Besides, if such a diminishing were even possible, RoboCop would have gone to rust long ago with the franchise’s more detestable cash-grabbing film sequels (*cough* RoboCop 3 *cough*), television shows, video games, and comic books.

Padilha, a Brazilian director best known for his fantastic, action-packed police thrillers The Elite Squad (2007) and Elite Squad: The Enemy Within (2010), reimagines admirably for a man constricted by the cold, calculating machine that is big-budget Hollywood. (It’s like a snow globe inside a snow globe, son!) Verhoeven’s vision of RoboCop was distinctly ’80s, given direction by big business Reagonomics, the cocaine boom, crumbling inner cities, gentrification, and nuclear threats. A quarter century of robotics advancements later, Padilha gives the story millennial resonance by focusing on drones and the ethical and practical issues of replacing soldiers and police with robots.

Unlike in Verhoeven’s world, where the privatization of the police force places authoritarian power in the hands of greedy businessmen, the 2028 U.S. government remains checked and balanced in Padilha’s RoboCop, but the country looks more imperialist than ever. To save the lives of its soldiers, it polices (read: occupies scarily) the world with OmniCorp’s shock-and-awe robots. The EM-208s (right) are no less terrifying for their humanoid form than the ED-209s, those familiar franchise behemoths that look like a tank went turret-deep on some female dinosaurs to conceive monstrous killing machines. U.S. citizens are willing to let robot soldiers march through the rest of the globe scanning pedestrians but hesitant to have their crime-infested streets cleaned up by heartless machines. A debate rages in the Senate and on TV pundit Tom Novak’s (Samuel L. Jackson) show over the divisive Dreyfus Act, which keeps drones off of the homeland.

When a car bomb critically wounds honest cop Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), his wife Clara (Abbie Cornish) allows OmniCorp to save what’s left of him and put his human face on a robot to make it more palatable. Led by CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), OmniCorp’s drive to put a robotic policeman onto the street is scientifically unethical and largely fueled by greed, but Sellars and the film make a smart argument for such objective officers: No more racist, crooked, power mad, lazy donut dumpsters with badges. In theory, lives will be saved and society will be safer. The impartial efficiency that RoboCop displays when employed, his dopamine levels dropped to lessen his emotion, puts flesh-and-blood cops to shame. He even gives a fuck about traffic laws better than they do.

Of course, all that eventually goes to shit because the human element is uncontrollable. The film’s handling of how exactly Alex’s humanity overcomes his system so he can ignore protocol is murky. In an early scene, emotion foils OmniCorp bionic engineer Dr. Dennett Norton’s (Gary Oldman) attempts to help a double arm amputee play the guitar again because the very feelings that the man says are vital to his expressing himself through music interfere with the brain-to-robotics connection. During combat testing, Norton describes Alex as a “passenger along for the ride” with the illusion of free will; when it’s time for some action, he can crack jokes but the robot controls his movements. It’s unclear how memory and CCTV footage of Alex’s wife, son, the assassination attempt, and the criminals and cops responsible for his maiming allow him to break free. When RoboCop goes rogue, one of Norton’s colleagues explains that he’s “somehow overriding the system’s priorities” and basically shrugs.

At its best, Padilha’s RoboCop uses technological advances in filmmaking to probe the idea of what constitutes a man. In the original, what’s left of Alex Murphy appears to be little more than a face stretched over a robot. In the new version’s legitimately moving money shot, Alex asks to see what’s left of his badly burned body and looks on in devastated horror as his machinery detaches, piece by piece, to reveal a small fraction of his physical form (a few vital organs and little more). It’s a phantom gut punch that’s visually stunning and quite powerful. To anyone who’s experienced a loved one deconstructed by disease, Alex’s initial desire to die, the embarrassment and shame he feels when zooming in on his human face to video chat with his wife, and his eventual acceptance and willingness to cling to life ring true.

The freedom of CGI also suits Padilha’s frenetic action style, which shines in a restaurant shootout, a darkened warehouse showdown with gun-running nemesis Antoine Vallon (Patrick Garrow) and his thugs, and a climactic, video game-like battle with ED-209s standing guard over the OmniCorp building. RoboCop’s super-human movement may bother some, but it’s a realistic step forward from the choppy movement of the Peter Wellers cyborg and the stop-motion ED-209s.

For all its strength, agility, and slickness, the remake cannot outmaneuver comparisons. The drone and imperialism issues are timely, but Padilha’s RoboCop lacks the satirical, powdered-nostril craziness that made the original film so impressive. The car bomb and Vallon aren’t nearly as memorable as over-the-top gang leader Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith) and his boys getting playfully surgical on Murphy with their guns before riddling him with bullets. Nor is there a moment that stands out the way a thug melting from exposure to toxic waste and exploding when run down by a car does. The world is no less drug crazed today; perhaps this version would have benefitted from a look through the lens of Molly or bath salts. As is, the remake feels safer than its predecessor.

And then there’s the matter of RoboCop’s tactical black suit. For longtime fans, stripping the silver is like ripping the “S” off of Superman’s chest. Sure, the move has real-world application (think of the Stealth bomber) but it stinks of marketing ploy, like professional sports teams changing their colors to sell more streetwear. Hell, Sellars introduces the idea of the RoboCop’s black suit in a scene where OmniCorp marketing specialist Pope (Jay Baruchel) breaks down what focus groups think of different looks, including a kid-friendly one with blue and red police lights that look like shoulder pads. And whatever stealthiness all-black provides, it seems unnecessary, given his many technological advantages—complete access to archived and up-to-the-moment CCTV footage, thermal vision, scanning that allows him to assess threats, medical conditions, and even emotional states, and tons of guns. Alex’s partner Jack (Michael K. Williams) jokes that he’s “the right color” now and it’s not unreasonable to wonder if some poor, misguided exec decided to release the movie in February because, you know, it’s Black History Month.

If one accepts Padilha’s reboot as a fine action film with some good modern commentary and a handful of moments that genuinely add to the franchise, it is a fulfilling viewing experience. But like Murphy’s physical remains, there are important parts that will be missed.

Review by Justin Monroe (@40yardsplash)

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