Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop, made back in 1987, is widely regarded as one of his best movies alongside 1990’s Total Recall and 1997’s Starship Troopers, all sci-fi action blockbusters featuring amazing special effects (for its time) and boasting a sharp satirical edge that made them unforgettable classics. Last year, Hollywood attempted to remake Total Recall (with Colin Farrell in Arnie’s old role) and it was an epic failure. Apart from improved special effects, every aspect of the new film, from the story to the characters to the action, was inferior. Most of all, the charm and wit of the original was all gone.
This year they’ve decided to remake RoboCop, with Brazilian Jose Padilha directing and largely unknown actor Joel Kinnaman (I only knew him as Oliva Munn’s boyfriend) in the title role and a bunch of big names from Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Jackie Earle Haley (Rorschach!), Michael K Williams (Omar from The Wire!), Abbie Cornish and Jay Baruchel in the supporting cast. The result this time is a mixed bag. Some might call it a failure too, but there is no doubt that the remake of RoboCop is much much better than the remake of Total Recall.
This time, the story is set in the not-too-distant future (2028, I believe), when high-powered robots made by the wealthy OmniCorp have replaced soldiers in overseas territories with a US military presence. However, robot cops are still outlawed in the United States, OmniCorp’s largest potential market, thanks to a senator played by Zach Grenier (I know him as annoying partner David Lee on The Good Wife). To get around the legal restrictions, OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) comes up with the idea of putting a disabled human in a robot, and that’s where Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), a good cop on the verge of death after being betrayed by corrupt cops, comes in. This is all pretty obvious stuff.
The good news about this RoboCop reboot is that apart from the title, the name of the protagonist and a few key plot points, the film is very different to the original. After all, why remake a movie if it’s just going to be exactly the same? This RoboCop places more attention on the internal emotional struggles of Murphy than the original and spends a lot of time on the course of his development and the logistics of operation, most probably because a big star like Gary Oldman plays the scientist/doctor in charge of the project. In that sense, this RoboCop is a much more personal and serious film, though it doesn’t forget to pay homage to the original through some references such as suit and robot design.
The special effects are, needless to say, impressive, as you would expect from a 2014 film. The action scenes are also well done, though I had expected a little more innovation and creativity as the choreography was fairly standard and contained no particularly memorable sequences.
Joel Kinnaman is an interesting choice for Murphy (especially given that A-listers such as Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp and Keanu Reeves were considered). He seems tall but not really a leading-man type of guy, but neither was Peter Weller (the original). Like Weller though, Kinnaman does have a prominent jaw/lip area and that’s rather important as RoboCop spends a lot of his time with all but that part of his face covered. He doesn’t exude much charisma but does a solid job of playing both the cop and the RoboCop (ie, one with emotion and the other without). The jury’s still out as to whether he’s going to become a bigger star after this.
As for the supporting cast, Gary Oldman and Michael Keaton have the juiciest roles as the sympathetic doctor and the villainous CEO, while it was interesting to see the man who played Omar (Michael K Williams) play a cop instead of a crook. Aussie Abbie Cornish has a thankless role as the distressed and helpless wife, while Jackie Earle Haley is another interesting choice as the commander of the robots given his diminutive stature, but he more than makes up for it with his disturbing versatility. As for Samuel L Jackson, he was pretty much the same as always.
The main problem with the film is that it couldn’t exactly decide whether it wanted to be a serious film or be laced with satire like the original. I’m not saying that the remake had to take the same angle as Verhoeven’s version, and in fact I tend to prefer something fresh. This reboot starts with and features, sporadically, a series of TV segments hosted by Samuel L Jackson that are clearly intended to satirize America’s manipulative right wing TV shows (like those on Fox News). While these segments are semi-amusing and have strong political undertones (though they are nowhere near as good as those in Starship Troopers), they are also completely at odds with the tone and feel of the rest of the film, which is completely devoid of jokes, tongue-in-cheek one-liners and cheesy dialogue. It’s like they wanted to have fun and play it straight at the same time, and the result is confusing and renders the film frustratingly uneven.
I had high expectations for RoboCop and named it as one of my most anticipated movies of 2014 because I loved the 1987 original so much. It’s one of those movies I’ve seen heaps of times and will always keep watching if I happen to stumble across it on TV. I felt there was a lot they could have done with a remake given the advancements in modern technology and medicine since 1987. And I’m not just talking about special effects and character design either. They could have completely revamped the system, introduced some cool new stuff like innovative gadgets or vehicles which would make way for fresh action sequences that would override anything from the original. Instead, apart from showing us how efficient crime fighting would be with all the entire police database and CCTV camera footage in a cop’s head, the film fails to deliver any of those things. On a deeper level, I didn’t expect the remake to recapture the magic of the original, and I didn’t think it had to have the same satirical edge, but I had hoped that it would at least produce some of the same wit. Sadly, it didn’t do much of that either.
That said, if you take RoboCop 2014 as a standalone popcorn flick, it’s actually not bad — maybe even pretty good. The story is still cool, the cast is fantastic, the effects are great and the action is solid. I wasn’t anywhere near bored but neither was I thoroughly entertained like I hoped I would be. This remake is not a worthless one like Total Recall was, though it still missed an excellent opportunity to deliver something truly special.
3.25 stars out of 5
PS: Apparently a Starship Troopers remake is tentatively in the works. I can’t think of a film that needs a remake less than that one.