Directed by José Padilha
I should confess a certain lack of sympathy with the theoretical ire lodged at the Robocop remake, if only because the 1987 original is walking proof that an irreplaceable cultural touchstone doesn’t, in fact, also need to be a masterpiece. (Really—watch it again.) If Hollywood’s gluttonous appetite for “reboots” isn’t your thing, that ground is worth standing, but if it’s gotta happen, why should Robocop be exempt from the same treatment tendered Red Dawn, Conan The Barbarian, Total Recall or The Thing? Given the outcomes of these ungallant ventures, a skeptical antipathy makes more than a little sense—but for me, early word that Brazilian filmmaker José Padilha would be calling the shots was greatly encouraging. The director cut his teeth on a pair of gritty crime dramas (the Elite Squad diptych, highly recommended), stacked with police brutality and mind-boggling corruption ripped from the headlines of the slums of Rio de Janeiro. Hell, maybe his Robocop would turn out to be something special.
For better and for worse, the remake is most certainly its own beast, less withering and more topical than Verhoeven’s version, biting off trippy political tangents it can’t possibly find time to chew. OmniCorp’s urban pacification robots—redos of the ED-209 from the original—have become crucial to American foreign policy. An early sequence depicts a US-occupied Tehran, where suicide bombers successfully take one of the lumbering behemoths down. (“Remember,” one of them bellows, “the goal is to die on television.”) But a knife-wielding teenager is identified as a threat in the crossfire by a patrol robot and immediately blown to smithereens, scrambling the audience’s sympathies and highlighting the reason legislators don’t want OmniCorp’s technology on American soil: the robots have no human impulse driving their decisions. “Subversive” is the word people usually trot out for this type of onscreen politicking, but really Padilha’s vision of American exceptionalism taken to the highest-tech extreme is too brutal, too explicit and too sincere to be considered contraband.
Whereas Peter Weller’s Lieutenant Alex Murphy was effectively braindead in the original—with traces of his human identity trickling into his robo-performance by the film’s end—Padilha and his screenwriters choose to keep Murphy’s personality intact, because the new version of OmniCorp packages its cybernetic exoskeletons in the rubric of helping war survivors reclaim their lives. (An scene where Gary Oldman’s virtuous scientist Norton helps a man suffering from PTSD to play the guitar with his new mechanical fingers drives the point home.) But what internal logic is driving Joel Kinnaman’s Murphy? After his car is blown up he retains his lungs, his brain, his heart, his vertebrae and his right hand. Standing in a dark chrome-tinted laboratory, Norton begins to grapple with the Faustian implications of his work as he sees Murphy—essentially a human face hooked up to an array of machines—recognizing his rebirth as worse than Hell itself.
Scenes like these allude to the pitch-black seriousness Padilha obviously believes the material deserves. Michael Keaton’s turn as a TED-style thinkfluencer-cum-evil corporate overlord is delirious casting, and same goes for Samuel L. Jackson as a jingoistic TV host whose sole purpose, it seems, is to lobby viewers on OmniCorp. Owing plenty to UAVs and smartphones, the final Robocop unveiled is a sleek luxury-hybrid of the original, but with gigatons of CCTV and crime records piped into his brain. The action scenes—surprisingly few and far between, by the standards of Robocop’s contemporaries—have a fluidity, loudness and bone-crunchiness that makes up for the lack of blood. But despite these inspired flourishes, the 2014 Robocop has no chance of avoiding knocks from either fanboys or snobs. Its PG-13 rating dials down the ability of the violence to make the intended commentaries, and the script is too cluttered with philoso-political digressions to satisfy a single one; compared to Verhoeven’s, the picture actually takes place in too small a vacuum to make its satire stick.
Opens February 12