D: José Padilha / 117m
Cast: Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Abbie Cornish, Jackie Earle Harley, Michael K. Williams, Jennifer Ehle, Jay Baruchel, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Samuel L. Jackson, Aimee Garcia, Douglas Urbanski, John Paul Ruttan, Patrick Garrow, Zach Grenier
With the Eighties being increasingly plundered for material that can be remade, rebooted or re-imagined, the likelihood of a new RoboCop movie was always a strong possibility. Now that it’s here, it’s inevitable that the comparisons between this version and Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 original are appearing thick and fast, with equally inevitable results: it’s not the same (shock! horror!).
From the black suit to the addition of a wife and child, RoboCop is – and was always going to be – a different beast from its predecessor(s) (let’s not even mention the animated and live action TV series’). Some things remain the same though. Alex Murphy (Kinnaman) is still a Detroit cop, working with his partner, Jack Lewis (Williams) to bring down crime boss Antoine Vallon (Garrow). When the pair get too close, Lewis is wounded in a shootout and Murphy is subsequently blown up outside his home. With his life hanging in the balance, OmniCorp boss Raymond Sellars (Keaton) offers his wife Clara (Cornish) a way to keep Alex alive: sign up to their research programme, headed by Dr Norton (Oldman).
Three months later, Alex is restored to waking consciousness to find himself encased in a metal suit and horrified by what is happening to him. After an escape attempt fails he begins to accept the reality of his situation and works with Norton to make the best of things and, more importantly, find his way back to Clara and his son David (Ruttan). With a projected annual return of $600 billion if their robot police programme is a success – and if a bill banning robot police officers is repealed by the Senate – OmniCorp is determined not to let Alex’s individuality ruin their investment. They take steps to control his emotional and judgmental responses, but reckon without his love for his family – and his need for revenge on Vallon – overriding their protocols. Soon, Alex begins to understand the depth of Sellars’ duplicity, and with his partner’s help, sets out to – yes, you’ve guessed it – bring Sellars to justice.
Although Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner – the screenwriters of the 1987 version – are credited alongside newbie Josh Zetumer, little remains from their script except various names, the Detroit location, and the movie’s basic structure. It’s not a bad (exo-) skeleton to hang things on and ensures the movie doesn’t stray too far from the (in-built) audience’s expectations. The major difference here is that Alex isn’t killed but is critically injured, making his memories and emotions a much more potent angle to explore… except the movie doesn’t. With the exception of a brief (read: cut short in the editing process) scene where Alex goes home for the first time as RoboCop, there’s no real exploration of what Alex might be feeling beyond having Kinnaman look aggrieved for a few moments in-between the action elements.
There’s also a lot of talking. RoboCop may be the first action movie in a long time to spend so much of its screen time having its secondary characters talk so often, and to so little effect. Jackson ramps it up as a thinly disguised version of Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, spouting diatribes as only he can, and providing the movie with its thinly disguised attack on corporate America and the media as devious bedfellows (Jackson also gets to say m*thaf*cka, so some things are all right with the world). And then there’s the continual back-and-forth between Sellars and Norton where Norton voices a concern or a negative opinion, and Sellars just waffles a few sentences and Norton goes away appeased. (I swear I have no idea what Michael Keaton is saying in those scenes.)
With all this dialogue and by-the-numbers plotting, how then do the action scenes fare? Well, one first-person shooter sequence aside (which sticks out like a sore thumb), RoboCop delivers fairly effective if unexceptional action beats until it wimps out altogether and gives us one of the most ineffectual showdowns in action cinema history (look for the well-armed guard who doesn’t fire a shot – no, look for him: once RoboCop appears he all but vanishes). And if I have to make one comparison only between this version and the 1987 movie, it’s that Vallon is a poor, practically disposable villain when set against Clarence Boddicker.
The cast perform efficiently enough and Kinnaman makes for a strong-jawed hero, while Oldman does his best with a character whose motivations change from scene to scene (and sometimes within them). Keaton underplays Sellars and only occasionally shows off the nervous energy that made him so exciting to watch earlier on in his career, and Baruchel gets to play the annoying marketing character you hope gets killed by an ED-209. As Clara, Cornish has little to do but look angry or upset from the sidelines, and Jean-Baptiste (so brilliant in Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies) is here reduced to treading water until her character is no longer required by the narrative.
Padilha directs with an efficiency and a drive that never quite translates into sustained tension, and there are too many filler shots of RoboCop zooming through the streets of Detroit on his customised motorbike. That said, there are things to like: Lula Carvalho’s steel-burnished photography; Murphy’s treatment of hired mercenary Mattox (Haley) after a training exercise; a short scene where a man with robotic hands plays the guitar; Mattox’s choice of music during Murphy’s first training session (plus Norton’s bemused response); the seamless special effects, a predictably vast improvement on 1987; and the movie’s best scene by far: the moment when Murphy discovers just how much of himself fills the suit.
Ultimately, what’s missing from RoboCop is a clear attempt at relating the emotional trauma of being a man in a “tin suit”. Without it, RoboCop doesn’t engage in the way it should do, and many scenes pass by without having any meaningful effect on the audience. It makes for frustrating viewing, and robs the movie of any real drama; sadly, it all ends up being just too impersonal.
Rating: 6/10 – a tidier script would have helped but this is by no means a disaster; a shaky start to a new series of movies(?) but enjoyable enough despite its flaws.