February 16, 2014 by Paul Curtin
Almost three decades have passed since Paul Verhoeven’s classic RoboCop hit theaters. Times have changed, and there’s not much these days that you can still buy for a dollar. The updated take on Paul Verhoeven’s other ‘80s classic, Total Recall, recently failed to win over critics and audiences, leaving many to fear that Hollywood would ruin yet another one of the visionary director’s iconic ideas. So is Director José Padilha’s new take a RoboCop-out?
While the 2012 Total Recall remake might have been as forgettable as the original was memorable, it was the Judge Dredd reboot a few months later that justified its existence and felt a lot like a more modern RoboCop. As a fan of the original RoboCop, which I just re-watched as a refresher, and a big fan of the recent Dredd reboot, I can honestly say that the new Robocop reboot does the franchise justice.
Taking place in 2028, Detroit is a city in urban decay, and Joel Kinnaman plays Alex Murphy, a good cop trying to put the bad guys away. Following the original, Murphy ends up being the victim of a vicious gang attack, and the shady OmniCorp helps rebuild him as the new face of their “let’s put a man in a machine” plans. Murphy’s transition into the new suit is handled very well and the script even manages to take some shots at fans who were up in arms over the changes with lines like “Quit whining!” and “People don’t know what they want until you show them.”
Unfortunately, while the suit change was a good decision, some of the classic catchphrases from the original also try to make a comeback and aren’t delivered anywhere near as effectively and feel forced. The soundtrack also uses the original’s theme, but again, it’s not nearly as effective because it’s not used as much. Even with some forced parts, Kinnaman does a far better job than Peter Weller and kills the role of both man and machine with a far more emotional presence and no more cheesy Mr. Roboto movements.
Where the original was focused primarily on the ass-kicking after the man-and-machine merger, the reboot spends much more time dealing with the emotional toll the transformation takes on Murphy’s wife, son, friends, and even himself. There’s even an added level of politics with OmniCorp, the private contractor and provider of all military drones in America’s fight overseas, who is in the middle of lobbying to override a bill that prevents said drones on U.S. soil.
This is where Michael Keaton comes in as the head of OmniCorp, along with Gary Oldman as the head doctor in charge of the RoboCop program and Jackie Earle Haley as head of security. All three are also perfect fits for their roles, but it’s Samuel L. Jackson who steals the show with his pro-robot and anti-freedom rants on his The Novak Element show, which is cut to multiple times throughout the movie in replacement of the original’s fake commercials.
Michael K. Williams from HBO’s The Wire even manages to get a couple good lines in despite not getting much screen time. And speaking of not getting enough screen time, one of the film’s biggest flaws is the lack of a true villain. Patrick Garrow is a solid actor, but the ‘70s-looking Conan O’Brien crime boss comes nowhere close to That ‘70s Show’s Kurtwood Smith’s performance in the original.
Another problem is that aside for Garrow’s gang, Detroit doesn’t seem like all that bad of a place to live where police drones are needed… The sex and drugs have been removed, and the violence isn’t as over-the-top as many had hoped. Even current day Oakland looks rougher for cops and makes a better case for bringing in drones to get a hold of everything.
Still, the new RoboCop certainly delivers the nonstop thrills shot after shot and manages to have its own share of a few unforgettable scenes that years ago would have likely gotten an R rating. José Padilha has proven once again that he knows his way around a good action scene, and of course the spectacular special effects blow the very dated original’s away.
If you haven’t seen the original or are willing to put nostalgia aside, you could very well end up liking the reboot better than the 1987 version once you see both. Padilha’s take is a sleek, modern update of the classic with a much stronger emotional element and far more social commentary on a very likely near future.
Unlike the superior R-rated Dredd, and more like the recent Total Recall reboot, RoboCop’s new PG-13 rating without question holds the film back, and its cookie-cutter action genre ending doesn’t leave things off as well as they could have been. With that said and negatives put aside, RoboCop as a standalone film is a kick-ass emotional joyride that does enough along the way to justify its upgrades. Hopefully now that the origin story has been retold, we can get a sequel that can take the franchise in a new direction. RoboCop gets 4 out of 5 stars (Great).