Does this put the “Oh…” in Robocop? We find out…
There’s no getting around this solid fact: we live in an age where virtually any cinematic property is fair game for a remake. No matter how beloved, respected, ground-breaking or unique the original version may be, somebody owns the rights to that thing and chances are, that same somebody wants to make more coin from it. Dress it up however you like; call it a reboot, or a reimagining, or ‘a new vision of a classic’ but sadly, in most cases, the reality is this: it’s a dormant license to print money. While there are those rare cases where the revitalised project is borne out of passion for the source – John Carpenter’s shattering retelling of ‘The Thing’ undeniably among them – most of the time, it’s quite transparently a matter of dollars and cents. And with each announcement, The Internet collectively shits the bed all over again, crying foul that anyone would even think to approach such a revered piece of film history, and banging on and on about how terrible it will surely be.
But here’s the thing – we, as film fans, should never actually want a movie to stink. Yeah, the original is excellent, and you can’t conceive of an improvement upon it, but if you genuinely love it – wouldn’t you rather have a modernisation that at least doesn’t tarnish the legacy? Or would you prefer that it sucks, as some kind of validation that “HAHAHA, I said from the beginning this would be a bad idea, bow before my opinion mortals!” type deal? I know it’s not ‘cool’, and it rankles cinema purists, but I’m definitely in the former camp. I love Paul Verhoeven’s movie, and saw it at the absolute perfect age (around 11), when I was getting to grips with both serious science fiction concepts and superheroes – and Robocop seemed like both. It had cops and robbers, car chases, shootouts (in which people actually got shot, already putting it leagues ahead of the likes of ‘The A-Team’), nasty villains, BAD WORDS!, and best of all – a half-human cyborg right at its centre. Over the years of course, deeper meanings would come to make sense; the Christ analogy, the media satire, the true tragedy of Murphy avenging his own death. This film earned the reverence it received, revealing layers to me, growing and changing and evolving in my mind as I grew and evolved myself, and it’s rightly regarded as a stone-cold classic of the genre. Why on earth would anybody risk taking on this franchise?
Because they already have, twice, with attempts ranging from bad to abysmal; Robocop 2 should have been pulpy and fun, but came off as incredibly silly (friendly Robo, child villain, robot vs. robot showdown) and the less said about the second sequel the better (hint: “Flying without wings”), so this modern interpretation hardly snaps at the heels of prestigious pictures. Like Omnicorp themselves, director Jose Padilha is attempting to bring back Alex Murphy in a radically different form. And again like Omnicorp, the results are mixed, but certainly not an out-and-out failure. But before we get to the good, the bad, and the baffling, let’s talk about who this robotic chap is for a minute.
For the uninitiated (God help you), Robocop takes place in near-future Detroit. Crime is rampant, and with the police force struggling to maintain control of unruly citizens, sinister corporation Omnicorp steps in with an answer – a cop with the brain of a man, and the reflexes and strength of a machine. Given the unsurprising lack of volunteers for such a project, the company is forced to wait until a suitable ‘donor’ is found for the suit… and so we meet Alex Murphy (Alex Kinnaman), a good cop caught in a system filled with corruption and dissent. Before long he meets a terrible fate, and is put forth to be rebuilt and reborn as Robocop… but at what cost? When you’re nearly all machine, what of the man remains?
While this core story is intact, this is a totally different beast to its 1987 predecessor, which streamlines many aspects of the original in pursuit of a sleeker re-telling. Gone is the gleeful violence – there’s nary a squib to be seen in the whole film, never mind the infamous Melty Man from Verhoeven’s version, but in all honesty, it isn’t really to the detriment of the film – the action is fine (with the exception of a couple of jarring CGI moments) and in some instances, very well put-together. Also updated here is the societal problem facing Americans, which isn’t a sweeping drug epidemic, but rather the governmental inability to put its faith in tech warfare. While US politicians happily set them to work in foreign territories, striking fear into enemies overseas with the fearsome ED-209 units, their policy dictates that such technology cannot and will not be used on home soil – and it’s for this reason that Omnicorp seeks to use a man-as-machine to create a loophole, and change the mind of senate voters. While the original film was much less tactful, with its on-the-nose, cartoonish jabs at corporate America and rah-rah-Reaganism, the 2014 version still manages a fairly successful contemporary commentary here – but at the cost of a sense of immediacy to the story it delivers. Padilha’s version essentially boils down to creature vs. creators, as Omnicorp strip away more and more of the man beneath the metal in pursuit of their perfect soldier until he begins to fight back – and that’s where the remake hits its first major roadblock.
Taking the chief badboy role here is Michael Keaton. And that’s good! Keaton is not only endlessly good value, but criminally underutilised on the big screen anymore, so it’s great to see him back. He brings a relished balance of smarm, sleaze and megalomania to Raymond Sellars, head of Omnicorp and the business-guy face of the project, while the excellent Gary Oldman brings a heavy heart to his performance as Dr. Dennett Norton – forced to gradually dehumanise Murphy at his employer’s behest until only his blank face remains. These two heavyweights do the bulk of the lifting in terms of dramatics, but the whole cast is solid-to-good: Kinnaman’s arc focuses much more on Murphy’s humanity and heartbreak than before, and with a few wrenching scenes, he convinces he’s good if not quite great, while the use of CG on the suit is by and large effective (particularly in one heart-breaking moment, when he sees he comes apart piece by piece to reveal the true extent of his injuries). In smaller roles, Samuel L. Jackson and Jackie Earle Hayley both impress as a Fox-News-inspired political anchor and militia leader respectively. But Patrick Garrow’s Antoine Vallon is the face of crime here – the street enemy responsible for the violent crimewave in Detroit, and Murphy’s death itself. And you know what he’s not? A patch on this magnificent bastard:
Brought to life in the 1987 film by Kurtwood Smith, Clarence Boddiker is one of sci-fi’s most memorable monsters: he’s violent, selfish, smug, disloyal and disgusting, and the other members of his gang are just as bad. Although not even the ‘big’ villains of the piece (in both cases, the company men are the true bad guys), they certainly were the central ones; the gang that dispatches Murphy, the gang working with the corrupt city officials, the gang with whom Robocop seeks his personal revenge. Sad to say, the 2014 crew barely register; although given a decent enough send-off set piece (possibly the best one of the whole movie, a night-vision shootout in the dark), it flies by without a fraction of the weight of the steel mill showdown of its predecessor. This is emphasised by that fact that, including Vallon himself, the crims here are devoid of personality and totally interchangeable, and you pretty much don’t really care. It’s disappointing to see such a key part of the Robocop story mishandled so badly. And I know, we shouldn’t be comparing this to the 1987 film at each and every turn – but that would be easier if the film didn’t consciously remind us it’s a remake every five minutes, with references delivered either via either visuals, sound cues (the original Robocop theme is used as the music to Jackson’s TV spot) or through character dialogue. There’s also a huge training sequence that takes place in an abandoned warehouse, as Murphy takes on a team of ‘bots to prove his worth to the company. I thought this was in place of the grisly drug factory shootout boasted by Robocop ’87… but then we also get a replica of that later on (albeit without the gore and cocaine), which seemed confusing and a bit repetitive, and a clear example of the fear to step completely out of Peter Weller’s shadow. It’s got one shiny foot in the future and one in the past.
What you make of how the Tin Man himself is realised is entirely down to you; again, I had to take the good with the bad. The suit is designed enough to be instantly familiar, with tweaks – however a decision early on to make him “…more tactical… black, let’s make him black” wasn’t necessary, as the original platinum look is iconic and wonderful. He also spends around half the film with his visor up, which works dramatically but definitely looks kind of goofy here and there.
I did quite like the fact he can haul some ass this time around; gone is the chug-chug-chug, Jason Voorhees pace of the old suit as Murphy is now capable of high speed on foot and considerable jumps (as well as being given his own Robocycle instead of just a squad car), and the way he is given simultaneous access to all records, city files and surveillance footage across Detroit is not only worked into the story in interesting and fun ways – but another nudging commentary about the Big-Brother-style cameras popping up virtually everywhere in reality, and the implications of our every movement now being monitored and recorded. As another fun little homage, the leg-holster survives the transition and looks fantastic… but because of the PG-13/12A rating, most of the time he’s just tasering criminals instead of mercilessly gunning them down, which somewhat lessens the impact. As I said earlier, this isn’t particularly damaging to the film – I don’t need to see gallons of blood every time a bullet hits – but I do kind of have a problem with the policy of deciding a rating prior to a film being finished (or started). Purposely aiming for a wider audience with the sole intention of making more money puts limits on the vision of the filmmaker. Which is not only not cool, but it kinda makes Columbia Pictures the money-grubbing corporate equivalent of Omnicorp, and Jose Padilha their poor Alex Murphy… who’s just there to bring in the bucks for the bigwigs. Wow, I believe I just made a legit metaphor. Still got it.
But, for all these complaints, I can’t deny I still had a pretty good time with the film. I really bought into the tragedy of the story here, and while there is no scene as powerful as Murphy stalking through his old family home – his corrupted memory replaying touching scenes from his past – or dialogue as potent as “I can feel them… but I can’t remember them”, Murphy’s separation from his family draws much more focus and ultimately makes him more sympathetic in this modernisation. There’s a slight reversal here in that in that he initially retains memories after becoming Robocop, meeting his wife and son still as Alex… but these are then taken away by Omnicorp in order to make him a more controllable and reliable product. The man begins to vanish, and between the performances of Kinnaman, Abbey Cornish as wife Clara, and the despair of Oldman’s Dr. Norton as he realises the extent of what he has done, it does a fairly good job of tugging you off once or twice. In the heartstrings! I meant the heartstrings.
For those who wrote this off from the second it was announced, there’s certainly a lot of problems here, probably enough to justify your unwavering opinion – but let go of your robolove, look at this with fresh eyes and, while it’s not fantastic, there are certainly plenty of engaging moments and performances to be found here. That sounds like damning with faint praise, I know, but somewhere in here there’s still a little kid who loves cool robots. And while this remake, reboot, or reimagining – whatever you want to call it – may not have the smarts, bite or fright that started this franchise… it does, at the very least, have that.
Robocop is released on Blu-Ray and DVD on June 7th