The original “Robocop” is a dream for cult film fans – a very very clever film pretending to be a very very stupid one. It satirises the further encroachment of capitalism and “consumer culture” on our everyday lives and asks questions about personal responsibility while at the same time being a really awesome, exciting, and violent action movie.
First things first, new Robocop will not be making anyone forget classic Robocop, and I’ll try not to assume you’ve all seen the original (although if you haven’t, seriously, what’s wrong with you?). Samuel L Jackson is Pat Novak, host of “The Novak Element”, which is the film’s idea of what Fox News will turn into in a decade or so, and his show features robots (including the iconic ED-209) pacifying the streets of an unnamed Middle Eastern country. Plus ca change, eh? Anyway, he – as a shill for Omnicorp, creator of those robots – and Omnicorp want those robots on the streets of America, but some stupid liberals are blocking the law being changed. How do you get round the law? By having a part-robot, part human crimefighting badass, and that’s where the unfortunately blown up cop Alex Murphy comes into it.
The original’s setup is simpler – OCP effectively buys the city of Detroit and starts installing its own robots on the streets – but this isn’t bad, to be honest. Nice idea, and has something to say about the world of today too. The situation muddies quickly, though. Murphy’s family were virtually invisible in 1987, as they’d been informed he died (and his memory was “wiped”), but they’re central characters here, as they attempt to deal with having a husband / father who’s a head, spine, lungs and a hand attached to a robot. OCP back in the first film were thoroughly evil, but I guess in 2014 film companies are much more a part of huge corporations than they were before, so we have to see at least some of them as good people who just want to help.
Robocop kicks ass and takes names, but to cope with all the crime information uploaded to his head, they have to drop his dopamine levels, turning him into little better than an automaton. This, along with the reveal of what happens when his visor comes down, is an interesting commentary on what it means to be human and works well, even if the visor thing is mentioned once and then completely forgotten about. The driving force of the second half of the film is him trying to solve his own murder while Omnicorp exploit him in order to change the law.
The main issue with this film, I think, is its unwillingness to go as far as the original did. I’m sure that director Jose Padilha (who also made the extraordinary “Elite Squad” in Brazil) would have understood and largely agreed with Paul Verhoeven’s ideas, so the corporate structures mentioned above, and their innate conservatism, might be the reason? The cops actually go on strike in the original, and there are several central cop characters, but in this film they’re almost entirely absent, with the exception of the brilliant Michael K Williams as Murphy’s old partner. I don’t think any 2014 movie would show going on strike as a positive act, and would obviously rather not show it at all, just so no-one gets any ideas. The leering, demented “I’d Buy That For A Dollar” TV show from the original is referenced in one throwaway line but not replaced, which is a bummer.
The cast is packed with heavy hitters that the original didn’t have – Gary Oldman as the scientist who invents the Robocop system, Michael Keaton as the CEO of Omnicorp (in a role that was almost played by Hugh Laurie, which would have been amazing), with Jennifer Ehle and Jay Baruchel as his senior executives. Jackie Earle Haley is kind-of a rough approximation of the original’s classic villain Clarence Bodiker, but now he’s a scumbag military consultant rather than a scumbag criminal.
But it’s the body and acting of the Robocop himself which is where the film’s problems lie. Firstly, the original outfit was changed. It was a design classic, worked perfectly, but for some reason his outfit in this was a black insect-looking thing, less armour than a Batman outfit. They give him the “classic” outfit back at the end, almost as a sop to fans of the original (and to try and get us to stick around for the sequel), but we’ve already seen him in the naff other outfit for the best part of 2 hours. I already mentioned the saving of his hand, which leads to some very unusual visuals when he’s being dismantled. Why lose his arm but keep his hand? It’s so he can touch his wife and kid, I suppose, but in a film like this it just doesn’t make enough sense, and one can’t shake the idea they had a choice and went with the nice, sentimental option. Joel Kinnaman, as Murphy, is passable but absolutely nothing special, and not a patch on Peter Weller’s original performance.
A lot of reviews have said they think the creators of this film didn’t realise what made the original so good. I disagree, and think they understood perfectly, they just wanted to use the name to make money while largely removing the satirical bite that the original had. The comparison to our current use of drones to kill our enemies is made clear at the end of the film, but they don’t criticise the system that creates those killer robots, just the principles of the people pulling the trigger.
I don’t know. I feel like I’ve criticised this film a lot, when it had a lot of great action scenes and some solid performances. It just feels so…pointless. I’ve seen dozens of films that have ripped off “Robocop” down the years, and this film could have been one of them, with a few tweaks to the script and a change of setting. But all the people who funded this film cared about was the name and the few iconic images (the original suit, the ED-209, the OCP logo) that they could exploit to make money. Take out the genuinely subversive edge that made the original the beloved film it was, add in some family drama that no-one could possibly give a damn about, think better special effects = a better film, and there you have it. The evolution of a modern remake.
Rating: thumbs down