Grade: B –
Director: José Padilha
Starring: Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Abbie Cornish, Jackie Earle Haley, Jay Baruchel and Samuel L. Jackson
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 1 hr. 48 min.
In our present-day of drone technology, governmental surveillance and cyber ubiquity, the reality of RoboCop seems more immediate and ominous than it did upon the original film’s release 27 years ago. That’s the strength of director José Padilha’s slickly produced remake. The chink in the armor, however, is that apart from teasing a few tantalizing themes, the film doesn’t do enough to shed its air of stuffy sameness. Indeed, if 2014 reinvention is your aim, you don’t make a lot of progress by casting Michael Keaton, Gary Oldman, (let’s be honest…) Samuel L. Jackson, and someone who rose to popularity as part of the original The Bad News Bears.
Prohibited by law from expanding their lucrative drone robotics program to U.S. city streets, OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Keaton) teams with scientist Dr. Dennett Norton (Oldman) to develop a human/machine hybrid to circumvent legal strictures and stir up public outcry to repeal the ban. Their PR guinea pig is Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), a Detroit policeman critically injured while investigating crooked cops and a local crime boss. Norton encases Murphy’s surviving brain stem, heart and lungs inside a detachable, weaponized metal suit, whereupon Murphy is tasked to clean up the Motor City’s mean streets.
The crux of RoboCop’s problems is Kinnaman, who exudes a mechanical affect even before his character is pumped full of antipsychotics. There’s little emotional connection, even when he’s mourning a wounded partner (Michael K. Williams), interacting with his wife Clara (Abbie Cornish) and hockey-loving moppet, or essentially being controlled as a literal corporate slave.
Although Padilha scrubs much of the original’s dark humor, there are sardonic flourishes, like the resident paramilitary meathead (Jackie Earle Haley) piping in “If I Only Had a Heart” from The Wizard of Oz during “the Tin Man’s” combat simulation exercise, and Jackson acting as the film’s Shakespearean chorus in the form of a right-wing, corporately-compromised TV show host. Amongst the rest of the supporting cast, Oldman acquits himself best as an earnest but conflicted man of science pushed to compromise his ethics.
Comeuppance for the transgressors comes quickly and with relative ease, such that there’s plenty of opportunity left for Padilha to flesh out the wider, thought-provoking ideas suggested as early as the film’s opening sequence, when OmniCorp robots employed by the U.S. military patrol the streets of Tehran, pacifying the populace at the point of laser cannons while suicide bombers position to strike their metallic occupiers.
However, the film’s intriguing, even affecting first half ultimately surrenders to a harried final third, as the narrative wholly embraces its otherwise tragic Frankenstein’s monster subtext at the expense of still-unexplored social and political conundrums. RoboCop has a heart, but it could have been much more … if it only had a brain.