It’s a shame that Jos￩ Padilha’s “RoboCop” is a remake of Paul Verhoeven’s “RoboCop.”
Like some of the best remakes, Padilha’s “RoboCop” (mostly) goes in its own direction. It takes the skeleton of the original, retains the most basic elements but then it goes and does its own thing. Save for a few cheeky winks at the original, Padilha’s film tries valiantly to be more than a simple beat-for-beat retread. But the fact is, the 1987 version is a stone-cold classic, the shadow of Paul Verhoeven’s original still looms large in the minds of fans, which means this one likely won’t be given the shot it deserves.
The original was a blistering bit of cinema, infamous for its high levels of graphic violence, but it also possessed a sharp, satirical edge that undercut and even made comedic a good portion of said violence. There was Rob Bottin’s phenomenal practical make-up effects, Kurtwood Smith’s note-perfect villain, to say nothing of the performance of Peter Weller, who proved that it takes real talent to make a robotic performance interesting and engaging. It was a film that thrilled and wowed but offered a lot to chew on thanks to Verhoeven’s blackly comic sensibilities and ability to draw out the subtext of the script.
About the only thing that Padilha’s film has in common with Verhoeven’s is the fact that it centers on a Detroit cop named Alex Murphy who suffers near-fatal injuries and is given a robotic body to continue fighting crime. There are some peripheral similarities, such as the existence of a massive corporation bankrolling the whole thing and some bits of social satire, but by and large Padilha is interested in examining different facets of the character and concept.
This “RoboCop” wants to examine the ethics of the drone war. In a terrifically staged pre-opening credits sequence, we see how OmniCorp’s drone robots are patrolling the streets of the Middle East. Residents are routinely forced out of their homes for retinal and fingerprint scans. This occupation has virtually eliminated crime and violence and not cost a single human (American) life, but it’s at the cost of creating a robotic police state. The American public, however, is vehemently opposed to any such automated protection, going so far as to approve of a legislative ban on OmniCorp’s domestic drone use.
But OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) isn’t going to let something as fickle as public opinion prevent his company from making billions. He just has to give the people a robot with a conscience, a product they can rally around and cheer for. He finds the perfect candidate in Det. Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), who is nearly killed in a car bombing after he comes close to sniffing out two dirty cops.
OmniCorp’s top scientist, Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) reluctantly agrees to perform the transition operation, assured by Sellars that Murphy will only ever be used for law enforcement purposes, thus birthing RoboCop.
And this is where Padilha’s version both engages and frustrates. I love the timely and relevant debate over drone use and surveillance. I love the way that OmniCorp tries to rob Murphy of his emotions, at first letting his human side still have control before turning him into a robotic zombie. I love that Padilha’s is subtlely taking aim at the movie studio who sanitized and focus-tested the idea of remaking “RoboCop” in the first place. There is so much potential here, not just for a smart update on the original, but for one that completely holds its own when held next to it.
The problem is that so much of that potential just can’t seem to pop off the page and reach its full potential. The drone debate gets all but forgotten about halfway through the movie. The emotional stuff never connects in the way it should and Padilha’s stabs at satire never take deep enough root. It also doesn’t help that Detroit in this film is never really shown to be so overridden with crime that someone/thing like RoboCop would be deemed necessary. I don’t really have a problem with the fact that this is a bloodless remake, only that it’s often a toothless one.
Still, I think as a whole the film gets more right than it does wrong. The fact that it’s at least aiming for an intellectual debate on current political topics puts it streets ahead of the vast majority of other action pictures these days and it’s not as though the film as a whole is incompetently made. Padilha’s action may be bloodless, but it’s not boring to watch. The script may let him down, but he tries valiantly to keep things on-point. It’s a slick looking picture that I can only imagine would have been leagues better sans obvious studio meddling.
Kinnaman tries his absolute hardest to give a soul to Murphy, but like Padilha he’s constantly let down by a script that just can’t muster the steam to power into the right territory. Thankfully, Oldman , Keaton and Samuel L. Jackson all bring their A-game and brighten things up every time they are given something to do.
Although, in a way, it’s Keaton’s part as Sellars that ultimately exemplifies how I feel about the film as a whole. It’s a solid, fun, engaging performance. But there’s something missing from Sellars. There’s undeniably a bit of crazy lurking behind that billionaire faade, he just needs one good opportunity to really let the mask drop and get nuts. He’s held back and defanged, just like the movie he’s in.
When this remake was first announced, I was one of the few who held out hope because I remained confident that there was still plenty of room for a different take to exist. Padilha’s film, while undeniably imperfect, has proven me right. I just wish it was more able to capitalize on what it so desperately wants to take aim at. Here’s hoping this is successful enough that another film gets the chance to do so now that a solid groundwork has been put into place.