Director: Jose Padilha (Elite Squad, Elite Squad: The Enemy Within, Bus 174)
Screenplay: Joshua Zetumer,
Producers: Marc Abraham, Brad Fischer, Eric Newman
Starring: Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Abbie Cornish, Samuel L. Jackson, Jackie Earle Haley, Michael K. Williams
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running time: 108 min.
As with any original property that is beloved by fans the world over, the idea of remaking RoboCop was not one that was going to be met with rapturous applause. But unlike a lot of remakes, especially from the ’80s – that most fondly remembered of entertainment eras – there’s actually nuggets of ideas in there that could very well work as a modern update.
And that’s where the RoboCop remake at least partially succeeds at what it sets out to do; update this technology-driven high concept to the modern day, or rather almost a decade and a half into the future, when the idea of robotic limbs and Artificial Intelligence is no longer just science fiction.
The year is 2028 and a multi-billion dollar company called OmniCorp, headed by the sinister Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), is trying to figure out how to persuade people to vote for drone machines to patrol the streets of the U.S. as it’s been working so well – and most importantly for the company, making tons of money – in every other country.
Meanwhile, undercover police officer Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is trying his best to take down a crime lord he has been after for years. When his enemy decides to try and kill him via a car bomb, Alex is left almost dead. In order to save his life, his wife Clara (Abbie Cornish) lets OmniCorp, with the chief help of genius Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), meld her husband’s body with a machine and he becomes the eponymous hero to help clean up the crime-ridden streets of Detroit.
Ironically for what is essentially a blockbuster, it’s not the action that works best about this particular remake/reboot/whatever you want to call it but the social commentary. Heavy-handed though it may be, at least it’s trying for something relevant; the idea of drones patrolling the streets is not an altogether fanciful one anymore and the film sets up the all-pervading, sinister corporation aspect quite well. There’s also intriguing stuff in there about morality, free-will and the lack of humanity in a world potentially run – or at least patrolled – by machine.
The film is framed by a Fox News-esque broadcast fronted by Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson), a not-too-thinly veiled take on the notoriously right-wing opinionated Bill O’Reilly. In these segments the film literally talks straight at camera about how machines would make the world safer and anyone against them is a weak-minded liberal – as you can tell it doesn’t exactly find the film in its most subtle of satirical modes.
It also hints at the idea of a family man being ripped away from his life, still technically alive but not ever able to return to what was normal for him and his loved ones. It never quite delves into that aspect enough to be truly effective and I don’t think Kinnaman is given enough to do to really sell that aspect as a performance but again, the film is at least trying for something meaningful.
The film is ultimately let down, however, by the all-important action sequences. They are merely functional and entirely unmemorable, playing as a cross between Call of Duty and director Jose Padilha’s own Elite Squad movies, without the verve of either. They are messy, too often reliant on CGI and, of course, largely bloodless. Although a film should always be judged on its own merits, this is so intrinsically tied to the original – not least because it consistently makes references e.g. the opening theme music and font, the “I’d buy that for a dollar!” line and so forth – that it’s hard not to compare. The original had a bite, both satirical and action-wise, that this rather po-faced redo sorely lacks.
This is neither the brilliant and clever blockbuster it thinks it is nor the epic disaster a lot of people were expecting. It does have some quite interesting things to say, even if it doesn’t always say them in the most subtle of ways. And while the action is ultimately disappointingly pedestrian, the film at least has more between the ears than a lot of other flashy Hollywood blockbusters, even if it never even gets close to reaching the level of hilarious, ingenious satire attained by the original.
This review was previously published at Thoughts On Film.