Everyone has their own idea on what constitutes the best remake, but most people can agree that the goal should be to improve upon the original in some meaningful way or to at least make the new film salient for a modern audience. The best remakes (John Carpenter’s The Thing, Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, the Coen brothers’ True Grit) take the core plot elements of the originals but find their own identity in relevant stories, fascinating characters, and casts that fully engage the material and the audience.
RoboCop (2014) has chosen a different path all together, and while it avoids the degree of pointlessness reached by far too many Hollywood retreads, it still fails to justify its existence. It’s a cleaner package, but the contents are far less filling.
You know the story. The multinational OmniCorp corporation has made a fortune developing robots to secure the streets, but while the rest of the world has signed on the United States refuses to accept armed drones walking its soil. Detective Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) meanwhile is brought to the brink of death after an attack by a purportedly vicious criminal, and his only hope is an experimental procedure designed to meld man and machine into the ultimate, drably-colored law enforcement officer. It’s a match made in heaven, but Murphy’s new gig as RoboCop lands him in a personal hell. At least he’ll be bringing some “friends” down with him.
Apologies, as those last couple of sentences make the film sound more interesting than it actually is.
Instead, director José Padilha has crafted a sleekly attractive action film (completely with shaky cam) that hits the bare minimum entertainment requirements. He faced a similar prospect to the one that Len Wiseman had before him with the Total Recall remake, but while both redos are slick, CGI-filled action romps, Wiseman simply didn’t have the chops or inclination to do anything more with the material. Padilha, by contrast, finds some heart and at least tries to fit his tendency towards social awareness into the film. You’d expect nothing less from the director of Bus 174 and Elite Squad.
Detroit is a war zone, apparently, and a debate grips the city and the nation regarding the use of robots to protect the populace. The right is represented by Pat Novak (Samuel Jackson), a Fox News-like commentator whose television show is a constant rallying cry in support of OmniCorp’s robotic police force. In stark contrast to Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 original, that’s the beginning and end of this film’s commentary on capitalism and commercialism. Opposing Novak is Senator Hubert Dreyfuss (Zach Grenier), a “robophobic” politician more interested in protecting his constituents’ privacy and safety by sticking with human cops. The two talking heads serve only to point out the obvious, but at least Jackson has a bit of fun.
We get arguments about how the robot cops will save human cop lives, but curiously no one at any point raises the obvious issues like how the already high unemployment rate would increase with all those human cops out of work, or how hackers would have field day hijacking armed, remote control robots.
Joshua Zetumer’s script seems most intent on keeping plot developments in line with the original while showing no interest in finding his own voice. It’s his first script, and I imagine the studio insisted on a cookie cutter creation, but the film is lacking in memorable moments. The biggest issue in that regard is the absence of an electric villain. The bad guy here is the opposite of Kurtwood Smith’s Clarence Boddicker and is instead an instantly forgettable nobody who tries to kill Murphy with a car bomb. A car bomb! There’s no personal connection between the two men, no raw association between Murphy and the man who nearly ended his life, and that lack of immediacy is partially responsible for the film’s lifelessness. The script tries to replace that relationship with the one between Murphy and his family, but more screen time for his wife (Abbie Cornish) doesn’t translate into much more than that.
The cast is filled with talented performers, but most are given too little to do. Kinnaman can be a charismatic presence in roles that see him skirting the edges of morality (The Killing), but he’s unable to bring much life to a straight-laced hero, let alone one asked to act robotic on occasion. Gary Oldman, always a welcome face, plays the scientist behind Robocop’s creation and does his best with a paycheck role that feels akin to his Commissioner Gordon in its somewhat hollow energy. More than anyone else, it’s Michael Keaton who shines brightest as the head of OmniCorp and the driving force behind screwing over Murphy, his family, and the public. He’s not given the chance to go full Beetlejuice, but damn if he doesn’t come close on one occasion. Jackie Earle Haley, Michael K. Williams, and Jay Baruchel each earn a smile or two in smaller supporting roles too.
Robocop is a better movie than remake history led us to expect, but it still pales beside the original and worse, it fails to stand on its own metallic legs. Viewers with little or no affection for Verhoeven’s film or those looking purely for a generic action flick may enjoy it, but everyone else should probably wait until it hits the bargain bin… so you can buy it for a dollar.
The Upside: Slickly made; energetic action sequences; visual reveal of Murphy’s remaining parts
The Downside: Far from memorable; villain lacks gravitas and a personal connection; minimal commentary; Robocop wouldn’t say “ain’t”
On the Side: Both Hugh Laurie and Clive Owen were strongly considered for the role that eventually went to Michael Keaton.