A little over a quarter of a century ago someone, somewhere, said “we’re going to put a man in a machine” and thus RoboCop was born; a 1987 cultural phenomenon that’s just as fondly revered today as it was back then. And now, in 2014, those words have been uttered again, and Hollywood has released a RoboCop remake; a family-orientated action movie which is actually pretty good (providing you’ve never heard of, and especially never seen, the original).
Most people already know the RoboCop story; a near-future cop named Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman, The Killing) is all but killed in the line of duty, before a shady corporation (OmniCorp) steps in and attempts to use Murphy’s remains as their new money-making machine, the future of law enforcement; a half-man/half-machine, company-controlled, hybrid who’s amazingly efficient at solving, and even stamping out, crime on the mean streets of Detroit, but soon finds his human emotions interfering with his machine body, and causing trouble for not only Detroit’s finest criminals, but Detroit’s finest, and the very company who created him.
Plot-wise, RoboCop excels in the beginning, yet flounders at the final hurdle; because while the introduction (showing the use of robot drones abroad, and Murphy’s near-fatal accident) plays pretty strongly, and the idea of him waking and in this version knowing from the get-go exactly who he is, and learning his new capabilities, is excellent, there’s no bad guy. None. Well, maybe there is, but we really couldn’t care about the generically average and rather dull street dealer (played by 16 Blocks’ Patrick Garrow) who attempts to have Murphy blown up, and the way in which it all turns round against the company and sees RoboCop gunning for OmniCorp’s president Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton, The Other Guys) just seems ham-fisted, and a little messy; plus, everybody loves Michael Keaton (he is Batman after-all), so nobody really wants to seem him get his comeuppance.
Keaton was a fantastic, and charismatic, addition to a cast which is headed up by a rather strong Kinnaman (sure there’s not a lot of emotion in his performance, but that’s what you should expect from an emotionless robot), and boosted by stellar supporting acts including not only the likes of Jackie Earle Haley (Shutter Island), Michael K. Williams (12 Years A Slave), Jay Baruchel (How To Train Your Dragon), and Abbie Cornish (the Limitless actress who does a great job of portraying the hurt and discarded Mrs Murphy), but Samuel L. Jackson (Django Unchained), and Gary Oldman (The Dark Knight Rises).
In fact, for most of the movie, shiny suit aside, it seems as if this is the Gary Oldman show more than anything else; not only does he seem to have as much screen time as Robo (and Kinnaman lacks the experience to properly compete with his shining co-stars), but his turn as the brilliantly gifted scientist who gives life to RoboCop is not only as engaging, believable, and flawless as you’d expect from Oldman, but the whole film plays out like a modern day Frankenstein; a more traditional version of the classic tale than I, Frankenstein; in which the scientist creates a human/mechanical monster that scares the public at first, and eventually turns on the ones who decided to give it life.
The effects are top-notch and, while there may be a little too much use of the shaky-cam technique, the action sequences are pretty great as well. There are some especially nice camera shots used, and overall it’s clear that director José Padilha (Elite Squad) has not only delivered a decent, family appropriate, action film (which is neither too childish, nor too adult, to alienate anyone), but has done something quite special with his first real Hollywood picture, and delivered a remake worth taking note of, and even manages to squeeze in just enough nostalgic elements (quotes, score cues, and visual references) to put smiles on the faces of all those who so fondly remember the original.
Yet therein lies the problem with RoboCop 2014; it’s not the 1987 version.
Nobody does a Paul Verhoeven movie like Paul Verhoeven (we saw that with the Total Recall remake), and this remake certainly doesn’t hold a candle to the original; it’s lacks the originality, spontaneity, cutting political satire, dark humour, and gloriously over-the-top violence that made the original a classic; we’ve lost the amnesia storyline (how engaging and heartbreaking was that?), we’ve lost Robo’s theme music, we’ve lost Peter Weller, Kurtwood Smith, and Ronny Cox, we’ve lost the arrest montage, the mystery surrounding our hero and what he actually looks like under the mask, we’ve lost the emotions, the soul, and the spark that made the original such a lasting phenomenon, and that’s why hardcore fans of the original will see this new RoboCop, as nothing but a RoboFlop.
Though it’s a shame that this film suffers in comparison, because it really is a good action/adventure movie; it’s got heart, it’s got guns, and even the Batman himself (Michael Keaton); so if you’ve never seen the original, or can completely push Verhoeven’s classic from your mind, you’ll thoroughly enjoy it. It may come across as a bit of a generic origin movie, have a few plot holes and some character-development flaws, and yes, it really, really, isn’t as good as the original (and if all you’re going to do is compare it, then you should knock at least three stars off this review score), but it’s got everything you could ask for in a modern action flick, and a RoboCop movie; a great cast, a few shoot-em-ups, an oppressive corporation, satirical TV personalities, family drama, and a man in a machine.
1987 hasn’t come round again (mores the pity), but this is a remake worth exploring (if only to get you, and the younger generation to revisit the flawless original); after all, it is a RoboCop movie.