Nearly any remake begins its life in Hollywood with the same moment, as some executive gazes upon an older film, whether classic or c-level, and accurately observes that the biggest problem with the original film is clearly that it is not making them any money. And so a whole enterprise springs up — from cast to crew, moviemaking to marketing — to turn what history proved to be a moneymaker into a new film that, it is hoped, will have the exact same result. I don’t care what you re-make, re-boot or re-launch — if Shakespeare had been prohibited from using classic plots and stories, his output would have been less than half of what it was — and my biggest concern about the new-school version of any film comes down to one question: Is it good?
And here, that question’s more complicated than you might think. Re-making Paul Verhoven’s 1987 perfect storm of ’80s paranoia, Me-generation excess, Computerized Reagan-eracorporate crypto-fascism and brutalist action would be a tough task to set for any director; after Bus 174 and the Elite Squad films, Jose Padilha’s action-packed but close-to-the-ground style must have seemed like a natural fit. But one of the problems with this new RoboCop is specifically that every time it even approaches an intriguing idea, it immediately drops it to go looking for the next shiny object to bat at. And just as Detroit cop Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) gets placed in a huge, metallic exoskeleton to save his life as a cyborg experiment, so too does this RoboCop feel like an uneasy hybrid of fleshy, lively ideas and a few charismatic performances hampered and hindered by being wrapped in heavy, dull, inflexible recycled shell. (Paraphrasing what Matt Singer noted, so eloquently, in his review of Old Boy, this is a movie made for an audience that doesn’t exist, one unaware of the 1987 RoboCop but also one that knows, loves and venerates it. )
Starting with Samuel L. Jackson’s blowhard newshost Novak asking about why Americans will use robot soldiers abroad to keep the peace but not to keep America’s streets safe, Joshua Zetumer’s screenplay gets at some interesting ideas from the jump — namely, what happens when you ask conquerors to submit to the protection given the conquered, and what happens to American policy when science says that you don’t have to risk a single American life in order to kill America’s enemies. The evolution of war from something soldiers might die for to something the enemy will decidedly die for, conducted by remote-control, is one of the guiding technological revolutions of the last century, from aerial bombing to the nuclear weapon to our shiny, imprecise drone-warfare program; if RoboCop had been about that, it’d be far more intriguing, and worthy of the nods at Brecht it makes between set-pieces.
But the film steps away from that, instead focusing on how OmniCorp — makers of fine quality peacekeeping robots — can’t sell in the U.S. and is leaving $600 billion on the table every year; messianic CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton, playing either Steve Jobs with a God complex or God with a Steve Jobs complex) realizes that the way to get around a law prohibiting robotic minds from enforcing laws over Americans is to put an American inside a machine. Betrayed by bad cops on the Detroit force with a car bomb, Murphy is the perfect candidate for all concerned — Sellars, his executive team (a wormy Jay Baruchel and a imperious Jennifer Ehle) and his cybernetics genius, Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman). And so Alex Murphy’s life is saved … such as it is.
Bear in mind that nothing in this new RoboCop approaches the squirmy, coke-y majestic sleaze of Paul Verhoeven’s original, and its bloodless PG-13 nature can’t match the diabolical and deliberate insane violence Verhoeven brought, either. Sure, there are nice smart touches: A riff on a famed The Manchurian Candidate shot, the fact that a variation of Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion is behind Keaton as they discuss Murphy’s death and resurrection, a great visual where a dazed Murphy robo-stomps through a clean room factory floor right out of Manufactured Landscapes. But they can’t make up for a storyline with no consistency or inner logic. Early on, an amputee who’s given new robot hands tries to play guitar, but his rising “emotion levels” interfere with his manual control; it’s a plot point that’s set up, laboriously and then ignored.
But the worst thing in the new RoboCop comes as it shows us Murphy’s suffering and terror but then says it was all worth it, complete with a finale in which love conquers all, not the clever logic-conquers-all computer-programming bit that perfectly capped off the original with wit, satire and a torrent of bullets. The first RoboCop felt like an unsentimental film made by cynical people, which made it extraordinary and savage; the new RoboCop feels like a sentimental film made by cynical people, which makes it expected and average. Maybe Padihla will now get the big-studio money to make a big-studio movie he actually can do something interesting with, but this new RoboCop feels like something we, and he, had to endure so that might happen. Kinnaman is functional, Oldman is shouty and contradictory, Abbie Cornish is capable of crying on cue and Samuel L. Jackson can still turn six syllables like “criminal mastermind” into a banquet. But the fault is not in their efforts, but rather in the film. The original RoboCop was a Frankenstein story dipped in excess until it dripped; this version is more like Frankenstein’s monster without any animating spark of lightning to jolt it alive, a jumbleof over-played special effects, scavenged musical themes, new ‘spins’ on old lines and sound effects from 1987 shoved into the hollowed-out carapace of the original film with just a few thread-thin stitches of new, interesting material to connect them. Loud, large-scale and lifeless, the 2014 RoboCop is a dead, blank-eyed doppelganger of the thing it was made to resemble.