It’s very simple: If you have a hair trigger temper and the very idea of there even being a remake of Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop in existence sends you into fits of uncontrollable rage, then just stay away from it. Brazilian director Jose Padilha’s North American debut and take on the material will do nothing to change your mind. That doesn’t mean it’s an awful film, but it takes a lot of effort to put the original film out of sight and out of mind. For all its glaring flaws, there’s at least a highly admirable effort being made to make this version of RoboCop bear little resemblance to its forbearers, and it’s actually always at its best when it isn’t trying to actively invite memories of the original. If you can set aside your feelings for the original, it’s actually mostly passable entertainment.
Following a bombing attack from a local kingpin that blew off limbs and damaged 85% of his body, Detroit police officer Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is given a second chance at life. He’s recruited by the OMNI Corporation to help push through their use of robots as “peacekeepers” in the United States, the only country in the world they are prohibited by law from using robots as patrols. With the help of a cutting edge doctor (Gary Oldman), Murphy becomes a human/robot hybrid, largely retaining all of his emotions and memories of the life that came before his accident. This use of emotion greatly distresses the CEO of OMNI (Michael Keaton) who orders Alex behind closed doors to be turned into a soulless, zombified officer of the law.
Right from the opening sequence – a talk show segment from a right wing cable news pundit (Samuel L. Jackson, playing someone cheekily named after both Bill Novak and Pat Buchannan) highlighting how robotic soldiers and the hulking ED-209 units are being used to keep troops and civilians safe in futuristic Tehran – it’s clear what the movie is doing right and what it’s doing wrong. First, and most positive, it’s not trying to ape the original film beat for beat. The scene also plays to the strengths of Padhila, who after his successful Elite Squad films has proven himself particularly adept in creating tense, close quarters action sequences and playing like a better made version of what Neil Blompkamp has been trying to do for quite some time now. The smaller downside to this scene is that it only exists to set up a plot device that won’t even be mentioned again until late in the film. The bigger downside is that while there is a satirical bent to this production – a key component to the original – the audience will only ever see these parallels in standalone scenes that do nothing to advance the actual story.
And so progresses Robo 2.0, constantly doing 2 or 3 good things at the same time that it’s doing 2 or 3 bad things. The best thing that can really be said about the work here is that it’s at least flawed on its own terms more than by trying to slavishly follow franchise conventions (except for the few almost slap-worthily abysmal quotes that somehow carry their way over here with little rhyme or reason). But the things that it’s doing well, it does really well and the bad things are more disappointments than outright failures; the kind of stumbles that suggest that the filmmakers were genuinely on to something here and the kind that at least belie some sort of actual effort being put in to avoid being called lazy.
This version gives Murphy a lot more backstory in the initial set up, crafts well rounded characters for the people that created him, and the script deals with a lot of different plot threads with a great deal of dexterity. The backstory, however goes on far too long, a lot of great actors doing great work end up getting wasted in thankless roles that are better ideas on paper than in execution, and while the plot strands fit, they are told in such a linear fashion that it ends up feeling like three or four films instead of just one.
Then again, all of the chaos distracts from the film’s biggest gaping problem and potential deal breaker for most viewers: Kinnaman isn’t particularly good either as Alex or as the machine. He has precisely one look even when he’s shouting at people: put on a slight frown and look vaguely at the ground. He has all the charisma of a door handle, which would be fine in any other RoboCop film in the original series, but in this new one there’s a very big deal being made about how Alex is able to retain his face and his emotions. When the face itself is expressionless and the actor inside what looks to be an incredibly uncomfortable looking suit can’t grasp the inner struggle between man and machine, it negates the point of even making this upgrade to the character in the first place.
But that major fault is where the spectacularly stacked supporting cast gets to shine… or simply look good while not doing anything of consequence. It starts mostly with a really great turn from Oldman as a mostly ethical and good hearted doctor who begins to get corrupted the further over his head he gets. There’s a ton of emotion and subtlety that he brings to his many scenes (he’s really the co-lead as it’s kind of written) that make his doctor akin to a more benevolent Victor Frankenstein: a man who knows he’s creating a beast, but who’s the only one who can see the humanity within. Keaton brings his A-game to the power playing corporate shill, coming off as smarmy, but misguided polemicist more in love with bottom lines and brand advancement than he is actual safety and protection. Also making the most of his small role with scenery chewing aplomb is Jackson, who seems to be having a blast as a cult of personality owning spin doctor.
It’s just a shame that while these roles work, there are plenty of others that feel just off the mark. Jackie Earle Haley has nothing but great scenes as an OMNI military contractor who thinks Alex is a unnecessary cog in an already perfect machine, but the scenes are good because of his abilities as an actor and not because the film actually gives him anything to do other than fire guns and spout off plot points. The addition of Jay Baruchel and Jennifer Ehle as a marketing stooge and an uppity lawyer (respectively) attached to Keaton’s hip is inspired in the film’s reflection of what it sees as modern evil, but again neither of them have anything to do other than the occasional one liner. The crime lord who tried to murder Alex in the first place is played quite menacingly enough by Patrick Garrow, but since this retelling of the story wants to spend more time of the robot backstory than the tragedy that befell Alex, he doesn’t get enough screen time to make any real lasting impact before the film just decides to be done with him entirely and somewhat anticlimactically. Then there’s the equally problematic matters of Alex’s wife (Abbie Cornish), his son (John Paul Ruttan), and his partner (Michael Kenneth Williams), none of whom are even mentioned until Alex has to feel something for the sake of moving the plot forward.
Also, while Padilha has proven in the past to be quite prodigious at staging large scale action sequences, he considerably stymied by this film’s use of digital effects. A simple but stunning looking training sequence in the hollowed out shell of a factory works very well, but feels placed in there only to add one more action sequence to the film. It still works better than a terribly misconceived shootout that takes place in the dark lit only by muzzle flashes (it’s a near seizure inducing mess), and a battle in a business tower lobby between Alex, a local SWAT team, and three of the ED-209s (which in this film are quite sadly useless, very easily foiled, and never made to be a credible threat) is just a nearly incoherent blur of pixels and debris.
And yet, despite all of that criticism, I was still largely invested in this new vision of RoboCop and I can’t say that I wasn’t entertained for great stretches of it. There’s quite a bit to like about it if you go in with an open mind and you won’t get frustrated by constantly asking why certain aspects of the original film were changed. The changes would actually make sense if they had a better follow through.
Perhaps the best way I can sum it up is like this: If this were a 2-hour reboot designed to launch a new weekly series on television, more people would be forgiving and likely to stand up and take notice of the positives more than the negatives that could easily be ironed out with future installments. Instead, just the fact that it’s a feature film called RoboCop means that it’s doomed to not get the fair shake it kind of deserves. It’s by no means anything exceptional, but it already deserves better than what I fear it’s going to get from some fans. Overall, it’s still the second best RoboCop movie we’ve gotten, overall. That’s almost enough for me.