And here we are at the end of another long journey. After going through the original RoboCop series of films, we find ourselves coming full circle with this year’s remake of the first movie. Did anything work – because certainly plenty of stuff did not. Read on to find out.
Director José Padilha and screenwriter Joshua Zetumer didn’t exactly try to reinvent the plot-wheel with this film. Many of the beats are the same: brave Detroit police officer Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is gravely injured going after an arms dealer and is resurrected as a robot cop, soon finds himself at odds with the very corporation that saved him. The script is so similar that arbiters decided Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner – the writers of the 1987 film – deserved credit equal to Zetumer.
This is a fascinating development (that really should hold no sway over one’s opinion of this new feature) because outside of the superficial similarities there are a few substantial differences between the two movies. Clara Murphy (Abbie Cornish), Alex’s wife, is a much bigger part of the story than she was in any of the original movies. She takes a somewhat active role in her husband’s recovery, which is itself a whole new animal in 2014. Murphy’s injuries are such that the mental aspects of his humanity are kept almost entirely intact upon his transition to a RoboCop. Contrast this with Peter Weller’s original RoboCop, who is much more robot than man, though his buried personality fights this throughout the picture. Kinnaman’s RoboCop is dehumanized in other ways, mostly by tamping down his emotions through the blocking of neurotransmitters.
This is actually a really cool twist on the classic story, and I liked it a lot (though the exact methods of dehumanization get mixed up and confused as the narrative progresses), but the filmmakers handle it poorly. RoboCop moves so damn slowly for about an hour after Murphy is injured. The pace, which had been speeding along quite well, immediately cuts to a crawl as various actors (Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Jackie Earle Haley) chew scenery while discussing Murphy’s future as Codename: Robert O’Cop. Maybe Padilha and Zetumer figured the prestige of a few excellent actors would be enough to carry a bunch of talking head scenes for an extended chunk of their runtime, but the are mistaken.
And it’s not the lack of action that is the problem; it is as if the script itself is not interested in what is going on. Only when Murphy begins investigating his own attempted murder (a segment which does not start with too much action) does the script seems to snap awake and remember it is supposed to be the source of a giant action film.
The action spectacle itself is quite entertaining, though there is so much CGI in the film (even in every movement of Murphy’s armor) that it detracts a little from the performances. Still, Kinnaman and Keaton especially embrace their roles with all the necessary commitment. Oldman does not buy into the film as much as his compatriots do, but even a less than stellar Oldman is better than most. Likewise for The Wire’s Michael K. Williams, who makes a few short appearances as Murphy’s partner Jack Lewis (the movie inexplicably replaces the only strong female character from the original series – Ann Lewis – with a man).
Unique concepts and strong performances make the new RoboCop a pleasant surprise. It is nothing too special, but it definitely receives a net positive from me. Ultimately the film’s biggest problem is that it loses most of the original’s subtle humor, mostly relegating its satire to the Samuel L. Jackson segments. I’m just glad to be able to say this is better than the Oldboy remake. Talk about missing the point! It’s odd to say, but perhaps Spike Lee could learn a thing or two from José Padilha. Eh, maybe not.