The year is 2028. Robot technology is at the forefront of defense, thanks to multinational conglomerate OmniCorp. Terrorism is down with the advent of robotic drones and statistics would seem to place favour on this new line of policing. However, the Dreyfuss Act, set up to prevent drones from bearing firearms, additionally prevents this system from being used within the United States. In a bid to turn these laws around, OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) enlists the help of his chief robotics scientist, Dr. Norton (Gary Oldman), to create a new breed of crime control, which will merge man with machine.
OmniCorp believe that they have found the perfect specimen when Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), is critically wounded in a car bomb explosion, planted by crooked cops, who are working for Detroit crime lord Antoine Vallon (Patrick Garrow). With the consent of his wife (Abbie Cornish), OmniCorp salvage what little is left from Murphy’s body and encase him within a highly resistant robotic shell, hoping for the public to find sympathy and support their project of placing identifiable enforcers on the streets. But they didn’t bank on Murphy’s emotional core surviving the process, which now sees him on a mission to capture those who have wronged him and uphold the law on his own terms.
It’s somewhat ironic given his pedigree. The Brazilian director burst onto the scene in 2002 with his debut documentary Bus 174: telling of a fateful bus hijacking which took place in Rio de Janeiro, which led to police officers behind held on trial and subsequently acquitted after the unruly death of perpetrator Sandro Rosa do Nascimento in 2000. The director continued to examine the state of his country’s criminal justice system in 2007, with the release of his debut theatrical feature Elite Squad, with was followed by a sequel in 2010. Providing an uncompromisingly bleak look at life in the slums of Rio, these features are brutal and gritty social commentaries on police corruption and urban warfare, fueled by frustration and exuding plenty of blood, sweat and tears. They have all the elements intrinsic to Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 ultraviolent classic, yet with a studio that wants as many bums on seats, our Robocop of today is not the kind of Reganism ode that some might have hoped for.
In fact, everybody wanted to hate it. By internet standards Robocop was doomed to fail before the cameras even rolled. This is a franchise which has been mercilessly flogged since 1993, battered into almost unrecognition as studios scramble to make the character more appealing to wider audiences. Awful sequels, live-action and animated television adaptations and merchandising had made the once-iconic law bringer a shadow of his former self. Yet none of those really tainted the impact of Robocop and its underrated sequel - they were just forgotten. The truth is that José Padilha’s Robocop doesn’t either. It might not warrant an entirely necessary birth, but neither is it the abortion that many naysayers were prematurely expecting it to be.
One should try not to be too cynical when approaching this modern update. 1987’s Robocop is as much defined by its director, who would continue taking satirical stabs at politics and pop culture for the next ten years in Hollywood; his voice and evocative delivery in action cinema is one that’s simply inimitable. It seems as if the producers of today’s Robocop are largely resigned to this, and given the unsurprising restriction of having to meet a PG-13 rating, they attempt to come up with something a little different, whilst respecting the overall ideology of their source material. The result is a relevant Robocop for a new age, one that isn’t simply a retread of what came before but something which builds upon its predecessor and escapes with its own identity.
Story-wise, the original themes remain just about intact. Padilha’s take also readily sends up greedy corporations, police corruption, right-wing politics and media intrusion, in a fitting documentarian manner. It’s a fairly exhaustive approach, to the point that it batters us over the head with its voice on fascism, with Samuel L. Jackson’s Pat Novak having all the subtlety of a hammer to the balls as he regularly interrupts with one-man, pro-mechanized crime control debates. This element provides the bulk of Robocop’s humour, which granted lacks the same kind of satirical bite and endless quotability factor of Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner’s original script, as it’s otherwise played straight-faced, with most of its leading actors showing not a hint of irony.
However, in keeping Alex Murphy its central anchor as he faces inner struggles to overcome the tragedy befallen upon him, this new direction is certainly palpable. While Verhoeven’s original merely hinted at Murphy’s home life as he goes from brainwashed drone, to reclaiming his identity, this update reverses things by introducing his family life and then later dealing with the emotional and moral complexities surrounding his resurrection. Much of its heart is owed to Joel Kinnaman and Gary Oldman, whose roles take on a fatherly/son relationship amidst ethical concerns, corporate manipulation, and the notion of free will, while Abbie Cornish and a sorely wasted Michael K Williams (replacing Nancy Allen’s Officer Lewis) appear intermittently to help elicit the kind of caring response required on part of the audience.
Yet it also demands a little patience from said audience. If anything Robocop’s biggest problems stem from its pacing as it tries to be an action film, social spectator and family drama in one. It’s a somewhat labored two hours, which although seems sincere in its delivery, fails to make as dramatic an impact in the action stakes, saving most of its big stuff for a limp final act that lends none of the gravitas it deserves. The side plot involving corrupt officers is carried out almost incidentally and the lack of any real villain outside of the corporations themselves is disappointing. Jackie Earle Haley tries his best to be somewhat antagonistic but there’s never a real threat of him being able to put ol’ Robo down, and the ED-209 units suffer through numbers, leaving none of the ferocious awe that ED’s original introduction had on first-time viewers. It does have its moments though: Murphy’s training sequence against an onslaught of drones is exciting, and given that it eschews the level of violence famously associated with the 1987 film, it’s surprising just how graphic it can actually be, when we’re shown Murphy’s badly torn body and subsequent encasing of his respiratory organs and central nervous system. A strangely fascinating and somewhat grotesque melding of science and nature that’s impossible to look away from.
In all, Robocop is a satisfying picture that respects the legacy of the original, from its rousing use of Basil Poledouris’s iconic theme, to building upon some of its foundations with conviction. Go in with an open mind and you just might have fun with it.