The original 1987 RoboCop, Dutch director Paul Verhoeven's first Hollywood film, isn't so much a movie to revere as a bit of brutalism to behold.
It had a grim comic vibe, satirizing the savagery of both corporate bloodthirstiness and justice-seeking rampages. Peter Weller's RoboCop was a techno-Frankenstein created to tame Detroit's rampant crime: Dirty Harry for dystopia.
Remaking RoboCop is like trying to recreate a nightmare. That's one reason why plans to remake the film were met with mostly dubious derision: Hollywood, particularly nowadays, isn't in the business of nihilism. Post-apocalyptic films may be all the rage, but a movie about a cop's dead body shoved into a robot is a tad darker than Jennifer Lawrence running through the woods.
Directed by Jose Padilha (the Brazilian filmmaker who made the excellent documentary Bus 174 before shifting into action with Elite Squad), this RoboCop has updated the dystopia with some clever ideas and better acting, while at the same time sanitizing any satire with video-game polish and sequel baiting.
The smartest addition comes early, shifting the story to Tehran, where the global company OmniCorp has drones stopping and frisking in the streets. We're introduced to this by talk show host Pat Novak (Sam Jackson), who appears throughout the film, brazenly promoting Pentagon propaganda, trying to convince what he calls a bizarrely "robot-phobic" American public that OmniCorp drones can make the U.S. safer, too.
It's a damning starting point that already positions America as the propagator of emotion-less killing machine. When the story shifts to Detroit, it gives the whole film the frame of: Would we treat ourselves how we treat those abroad?
Opening the U.S. market to its drones is judged imperative by OmniCorp. CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) is flanked by executive Liz Kline (Jennifer Ehle) and marketing wizard (Jay Baruchel, brilliantly smarmy). To turn the political tide, they decide they need (literally) a more human face.
For their RoboCop prototype, they find Detroit police detective Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), who has been badly maimed by a car bomb meant to derail his pursuit of a drug kingpin. Gary Oldman (always good, less frequently tested) plays the scientist who preserves little more than Murphy's brain in his new steel body, controlling his emotions and memory with lowered levels of dopamine.
From here, the film (scripted by Joshua Zetumer, from the original by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner) generally follows the original's plot, letting Murphy clean up Detroit before his personality begins to break through and his attentions turn to his maker. Any thought-provoking satires slide away in a torrent of bullets, which fly in the way they only can in video games or (questionably) PG-13 rated movies.
Kinnaman (The Killing) is a Swedish actor with an urban American swagger. Whereas Weller had to do most of his acting through his chin (obscured by the RoboCop suit), Kinnaman is a considerably stronger force, raging at his dehumanization. The fine Australian actress Abbie Cornish lends the otherwise metallic film a few moments of fleshy warmth.
What leaves an impression in RoboCop? It's Keaton's trim and affable CEO. He and his cohorts make for one of the most accurate portraits of corporate villainy, not because they're diabolical, but because they don't think they're doing anything wrong. Keaton, a too seldom seen motor-mouth energy, plays Sellars as an executive simply removing obstacles (ethics, scientific prudence, public safety) to accomplish what the corporation demands. The film's best moment is Baruchel cowing and explaining he's "just in marketing."
But PR is really the primary driver of RoboCop, with every action managed, refracted and spun. Will it seem at all prophetic years from now when Amazon.com drones are delivering tooth paste through the air?
RoboCop, a Columbia Pictures release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for "intense sequences of action including frenetic gun violence throughout, brief strong language, sensuality and some drug material."
Running time: 118 minutes
Rating: Two and a half stars out of four