The original “RoboCop,” the 1987 film by Paul Verhoeven, was a vicious, unrepentant foray into deep cultural fears about corporate domination, media corruption and the urban crime epidemic. Now in the 21st century we are neck-deep in the realizations of those fears: the movie’s native environment of Detroit has gone from a city in crisis to an empty hull, corporations are busily engaged in buying up its corpse, and the rest of us are trapped in the unending feedback loop of web 2.0. In some ways we are what the 1980s feared we would be.
Directed by: Jose Padilha
Written by: Joshua Zetumer
Starring: Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton
The new “RoboCop,” then, had ample material to work with, and I was looking forward to seeing how it reflected back on its predecessor. And on its face, there are no shortage of ideas. Director Jose Padilha and writer Joshua Zetumer bring the same basic plot structure- a mortally injured cop becomes half-machine to fight crime- to a 2014 world, complete with a Bill O’Reilly analog (Samuel L. Jackson), drone wars, and the use of robotics to help amputee victims. But these ideas are just that- ideas. Beyond having Jackson do an admittedly impressive job of reading as disingenuous and falsely patriotic, there’s very little substance below the surface.
That’s not to say it’s no occasionally thrilling. There are several arresting moments, the most shocking of which is when the newly roboticized Officer Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is shown what has become of his physical body after an explosion nearly kills him. A similar moment occurs earlier in the movie when a man with an amputated arm plays his guitar after having a robotic arm installed. Anything that has to do with the intersection between the physical body and the machine is beautifully compelling. The one thing the 1980s didn’t have was 2014-level special effects, and they are firing on all cylinders here, working seamlessly in the physical space. I think it also helps that there’s no 3-D in evidence in “‘RoboCop,” ironically giving the screen more texture and vividity than if the robot arm was COMING RIGHT AT YOU!
But the biggest mistake Padilha made was in casting Kinnaman as Murphy. “RoboCop” is just as much a character study as it is a righteous action flick- the character study just happens to be that of a half-robot half-human who may or may not remember his humanity. But Kinnaman’s line delivery is just as robotic before his accident as it is after. He’s surrounded by actors who are tremendous and fully engaged with their dialogue: Jackson, having loads of fun, as well as Michael Keaton as a bloodthirsty corporado and Gary Oldman as a doctor skirting the line of medical ethics to keep his research grant. Even Omar from “The Wire” (Michael K. Williams, who you should always be happy to see) gets a nice bit part as Murphy’s partner. But Kinnaman’s an energy suck from the movie- all of those lovely themes are subsumed by his lack of performance. Now that I think about it, I wonder what would have happened if it was Michael K. Williams cast as Murphy.
When you remake a movie like “RoboCop,” the first thing you need to do is justify your own existence. Why does this need a remake? What story still needs to be told? There is no lack of justification for a new “RoboCop”- it’s a brilliant idea to tell that story in 2014. The product is shiny and new; but it simply doesn’t deliver.