Starring Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Keaton, Abbie Cornish, Jackie Earle Haley and Jay Baruchel. Directed by José Padilha. Opens Feb. 12. 110 minutes. PG
The revamped RoboCop has a lot in common with the Ford Edsel, history’s most notorious automotive misfire.
The film must have looked good on the drawing board, just as the Edsel promised to be an “entirely new kind of car” in the late 1950s.
Instead of just aping the violent satire of Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 cult sci-fi classic, which has aged surprisingly well, remake director José Padilha (Elite Squad) sought to put more humanity into this man-machine melding.
He enlisted some very good name actors, among them Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Abbie Cornish, Jackie Earle Haley, Samuel L. Jackson and Jay Baruchel, a departure from the relative unknowns of the original.
Joshua Zetumer’s screenplay shades in character and plot details that were mere sketches in Verhoeven’s version, co-written by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner, which simply leaped over logic gaps.
So RoboCop 2014 should by rights be a sleeker ride than its 1987 predecessor, yet it clanks where it ought to purr. It’s a clear case of overthinking and under-delivering an idea, much like that infamous failed Ford. In other words, it’s a retooling that didn’t need to be done.
The essential story remains, pushed to 2028 from the previous mid-1990s setting, but still set in a blighted Detroit. Instead of smarmy newscasters, grinning through reports of global carnage, we get Jackson as a Rush Limbaugh-style TV reactionary, slamming America for failing to embrace robot cops and soldiers the way the rest of world has. Congress doesn’t think Americans will accept mechanized peacekeepers on U.S. soil.
It’s an embarrassment for homegrown tech giant Omnicorp, run by ambitious CEO Raymond Sellars (Keaton). He needs to prove his products in the homeland, and he tasks his top scientist (Oldman), military trainer (Haley) and marketer (Baruchel) with making it happen.
Opportunity comes knocking when brave young Detroit cop Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman of TV’s The Killing) falls prey to a vengeful car bomb set by the stooges of local crime lord Antoine Vallon (Patrick Garrow), who has friends in both high and low places.
Not much remains of Murphy — his head, chest and a hand — but it’s enough to strap into a robotic exoskeleton (made sleeker and more colourful than before) and to sell him to America as a mechanized lawman with a human brain, a perfect compromise.
The newly christened RoboCop might also still possess a conscience, soul and empathy, human attributes that could make him less lethal on the battlefield. As the trainer indelicately puts it, “Sticking organics in the system is a huge step backwards.”
This is the stuff of interesting drama, which Verhoeven exploited to the hilt with a straightforward and ultraviolent scenario of conflicted good guys versus truly evil bad guys. The original RoboCop was so gory, it earned the rare U.S. “X” rating (now NC-17) mainly due to its blood lust.
There was a rude logic to Verhoeven’s vision, because it was a really grim story that both satirized and eulogized the bullet-ridden American Dream.
The almost laugh-free remake sands off all the rough edges to achieve its tamer (yet potentially more profitable) PG-13 rating stateside — PG in Ontario. We now see people standing around a lot talking (and talking) about the ethics of biomechanics, and fussing over family and business matters, rather than just setting RoboCop loose to blast away.
When our man-machine does finally get in high gear, excessive camera shake and clumsy choreography renders most of the action scenes unsatisfying.
Advances in CGI and the IMAX screen do little to improve on the 1980s. There’s no single moment as good as the one in the original film where RoboCop tricks a crablike ED-209 killing machine to tumble down a flight of metal stairs.
And speaking of those ED-209s, who have a much bigger role in the remake, it prompts feelings of nostalgia to see them looking and acting as dumb and lethal as they did in Verhoeven’s film.
Saved from an unnecessary update and character adjustment, they can keep right on being as mindlessly violent as before.
They’re an object lesson for all such films: pass the popcorn and spare the sermons.