The Robocop remake is frustratingly mediocre. It’s not a complete disaster but rather an ample catastrophe. Director Jose Padilha’s reinvention is bland compared to filmmaker Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 film, but a comparison between these two films is a fool’s errand. Context is the name of the game when it comes to Robocop in 2014, and instead of having something decent to say about modern America, Padilla is obsessed with detonating scenery.
In the year 2028, robots created by the corporation Omnicorp are being used in combat outside America, but a law is preventing the CEO, Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), from rolling them out on the streets of Detroit and across the nation. When police officer Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is critically injured, Omnicorp seize their opportunity to create a law enforcement product that’s combines man and machine.
The idea of a Robocop being designed to match public opinions using market research is an acute observation that ties to the sanitised approach corporations take to delivering products in contemporary culture. There’s a scene in Robocop where Sellars chats with his marketing and public relations executives (played in cold corporate style by Jay Baruchel and Jennifer Ehle) about the handicapped candidates for the robo-project. One police officer is missing two legs and has become obese, Sellars quickly dismisses the man as too out of shape and unable to ‘test’ with target demographics. The next image is of a crippled African American man who is considered for a moment because he gets high scores with the ‘urban’ audience but is eventually canned. Finally, the team settles on a white male wheelchair athlete with his arms raised triumphantly in the air in front of an American flag. The company slang thrown around between Sellars and his minions is where the screenplay by from Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner with rewrites from Joshua Zetumer, has the most bite, but it’s only a little chomp.
The film slowly morphs into something that’s pandering to the outcomes of a survey sheet via the opinions of studios executives as to what ‘sells’ in cinema. The dirt and crime of Detroit is wiped clean and it actually looks like a safe place to live, the violence is sterile and the sight of blood is like spotting Sasquatch in the wild. There is one moment where Padilha does delve into a little body horror when it’s revealed how much of Murphy’s organic material is incorporated into the suit but it’s another tiny blip on the quality radar . A subplot involving Murphy’s wife and child is so laboured and futile in its attempt to resonate with the human side of the character that it could easily provide content for a sitcom called ‘Robot Dad’. Murphy also has a wisecracking black sidekick because all movies need those, and the action sequences are a grind of jump cut editing with zero tension, grit or spectacle. Even the dialogue is weaned down to ensure everything is explained slowly and clearly; it’s like being hooked up to a narrative drip. Robocop consistently tries to be all things to all people, and even has a few heavy hooked winks at fans of the original film, but it’s always one musical number away from fulfilling the all pleasing pledge entirely.
Robocop has an ace cast but the conundrum is trying to figure out what drew so many of them to the project besides simply paying the bills. The actors only in it to beef up their savings based on their performances are Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Jackie Earle Hayley and Abbie Cornish. Keaton moves between the demeanour of a laid back billionaire and an intense corporate hound in the blink of an eye and it works really well in the pure moments of Keaton crazy. Samuel L. Jackson superbly embodies the Fox News/Bill O’Reilly journalistic type by providing a running commentary of the plot through a news program called The Novak Element. Another gem hidden in the rubble.
There are plenty of nonsensical action films from the 80s to remake, but if you’re going to mess around with Robocop you better have something to say. Padilha’s take on the material is not entirely hollow but it proves the futility of remakes when none of the original elements are elevated or deconstructed effectively.
Cameron Williams - follow Cam on Twitter here: @MrCamW