Paul Verhoeven's 1987 action opus "RoboCop" is twenty-seven years old and may be even more timely and subjectively pertinent today than when it was released. A few quaint optical effects notwithstandingwhich, really, only add to its charmthe film strikes as auspiciously ahead of its time in its ruthless depiction of corporate greed and technology run amok, a vigilante thriller and empathetic character study with a socially satirical science-fiction bent. Serious when need be but also knowing how to have fun, the original "RoboCop" held nothing back, blitzing the screen with giddily unblinking carnage, superbly crafted action set-pieces, and a tricky but successful tone able to deliver a mainstream sense of diversion without marginalizing its poignant emotional through-line. Anchored by a complicatedly multilayered performance from Peter Weller and an ensemble of supporting players memorable in their clear-eyed specificity, the picture runs on all cylinders as the compelling, high-stakes story of a man saved from certain death at the expense of a piece of his soul.
To discuss director José Padilha's $100-million reboot, one must first prepare for what it is notwhich is everything mentioned in the above paragraph. An evisceration more than a remake that does away with everything that made the first picture so special, the new "RoboCop" is glumly self-serious, harmfully sanitized to a PG-13 rating, and absent of any detectable personality at all. It is also, while we're on a list-making roll, dramatically moribund and intensely disposable, its identity that of yet another colorless, bloated cash-in based on an established, potentially nostalgic franchise property. Forget the mechanized title figure; every character in front of the camera is so stodgily one-note and lifeless they might as well all be robots.
In the near future, political debates rage on over the concept of using man-made cyborgs to promote peace. Because synthetic warriors cannot feel and, thus, have no actual humanitya tricky combination to put one's trust inOmnicorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) and cutting-edge scientist Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) have conceived of an alleged happy medium: putting a man inside a machine. When Detroit police officer Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is horribly burned and all but entirely decimated in an assassination attempt shortly after grappling with a shady gang of arms dealers, desperate wife Clara (Abbie Cornish) agrees to allow him to be used as a justice-serving part-man/part-robot prototype. The more Alex's memories start to leak into his shielded consciousness, however, the more he begins to overwrite his electronically controlled system. Setting out to find the murderous culprits responsible for taking his life away from him, Alex gradually uncovers a vaster conspiracy involving the abusive corporation responsible for what he has become.
"RoboCop" is gritty yet sanitized, an uncomfortable, dishonest mix spotlighting first-time screenwriter Joshua Zetumer's scattered, misguided creative conceit and studios Columbia Pictures' and MGM's suffocating micromanagement. Less of a revenge tale and more obviously inspired by "Frankenstein" than its predecessor, the picture nonetheless staggers through the déclassé paces. Joel Kinnaman (2012's "Lola Versus
") is dreadfully miscast as Alex Murphy, equipped before and after his accident with the charisma of a submerged tree branch. Displaying no emotional range besides, Kinnaman makes so little impression it is as if his scenes were shot while he was still stuck in traffic on the way to the studio backlot. Unable to give pathos to his relationship with his wife and young son, who far more affectingly remained flashback visions in Alex's mind in the Verhoeven version, the actor is swallowed up entirely by his character's extensive effects work. The unforgiving killers of the first "RoboCop," so dynamically brought to despicable life by Kurtwood Smith, Ray Wise, Paul McCrane and Jesse Goins, are transformed here into forgettable standard-issue cronies.
If Joel Kinnaman is useless in the lead role, the other cast members are hurt by a substance-starved script that bungles every one of their talents. As corrupt Omnicorp head Raymond Sellars, Michael Keaton (2010's "The Other Guys
") snivels and acts like he's not to be trusted, but there isn't anything lurking underneath this bad-guy mask. Gary Oldman (2012's "The Dark Knight Rises
") attempts to put a little more of a spin on his Dr. Dennett Norton, torn between adhering to Sellars' demands and his own ethics, but is entirely on his own when it comes to such a threadbare, underdeveloped part. As Clara, Abbie Cornish (2012's "Seven Psychopaths
") walks through the film looking stern and/or worried while pleading that her husband be treated humanely. Again, there is no interest in who this woman is; she is used solely to service a desperately tattered plot convention. The less said about poor Samuel L. Jackson (2013's "Oldboy
"), the better; as the host of a sensationalistic news program called "The Novak Element," he is used as a tacked-on component from what feels like a different movie, popping up sporadically in lame, jokey, flat-footed interludes. In a particularly foolish decision, Alex's sort-of sidekick and confidante in police officer Anne Lewis (played by Nancy Allen in the '87 flick) is turned into partner Jack Lewis (Michael K. Williams), critically injured from the start and out of the picture immediately. Without that crucial character to play off of, Alex is stripped of his one chance to grow beyond a powerful, metal-helmeted cipher.
In terms of drops in quality and impact, José Padilha's "RoboCop" might be one of the worst big-screen remakes of the twenty-first century, proving consistently inferior while botching all the best elements of the original. It is okay to steer in a different direction from what has gone beforethat's one of the core reasons to update a film for a new generation, after allbut when said changes and even the similarities never come remotely close to rivaling what was seen in their precursor, what is the point? Add in dime-a-dozen action sequences violently chopped up to feature next to no coherence (thank goodness for that kid-friendly MPAA rating!), a dreary and unimaginative vision of the future that wastes its exorbitant budget and means, and a protagonist who couldn't be less vacant if he tried, and what is left is approximately nothing, nada, zilch. The late, great Roger Ebert once wisely opined, "All bad movies are depressing, and no good movies are." "RoboCop" is really, really