In 2028, OmniCorp employ androids to police the streets of every country except the US where a bill prevents the use of robots in place of human police officers. By merging man and machine, the corporation hope to sway the American public to accept a new era of law enforcement.
RoboCop (2014) has some pretty big bio-mech boots to fill. Paul Verhoven’s 1987 genre classic looms large over pop culture. A high-concept genre film, soaked in gore and slick with satire, it’s a high benchmark for any remake.
Jose Padilha opts for a slick action film, sending the RoboCop suit through battles with Terminator-like cyborgs and a phalanx of ED 209’s, resulting in mess of CGI carnage that Verhoven’s practical effects could not hope to compete with. The action editing is sometimes too frenetic to follow, but seeing RoboCop revel in his agility is a real treat.
However Padilha and his team recognised that flashy effects were not going to be enough, so they took the somewhat suprising route of investing in the man beneath the suit: Alex Murphy, played in suitably wooden fashion by Joel Kinnaman. The original kept Murphy’s family in the background, only rising to the surface as painful memories but here they are front and centre. Abbie Cornish gamely gives weight to some pretty lacklustre dialogue as Murphy’s grieving almost/kinda widow while young John Paul Ruttan turns up the sentimentality as Murphy’s adoring son.
In the original film RoboCop has to find out he was once Alex Murphy. Here he is self aware from the start, but the script struggles to define where Murphy ends and the machine begins. His transformation does contain some spectacular Cronenbergian body horror, but the extremely polished effects dampen the impact. Padilha is potentially punching above his weight as he tries explores what makes us human. However having Murphy wrestle with these concepts gives us a far more engaging central performance and makes it all the more tragic when he does finally ‘go full android’.
The film slows during its second act as we are given an extended training montage, when all we really want is to see RoboCop on the mean streets of Detroit – enforcing the law. When he finally does the film kicks into gear and returns to the basic structure of the original. What’s remarkable is how many elements Padilha manages to bring back, like he felt lip service must be paid to the fanboys at all costs. Some throwbacks are awkward (dialogue shoehorned in) but most (characters, sub-plots) are welcome.
One element that elevated Verhoven’s classic above its peers was the unrelenting satire. While not as biting, the 2014 model manages to weave some pretty damning social commentary through its narrative, placing US foreign policy and entertainment news in its crosshairs. The pre-credits sequence, involving an army of cyborgs cleaning up political unrest in Iran is a particular highlight. Samuel L. Jackson plays a TV host who serves as both a Greek chorus and a not-too-subtle caricature of several loud-mouthed conservative pundits and he clearly relishes the task.
The supporting performances vary in quality. Gary Oldman knows exactly what film he’s in as his conflicted doctor flips between sombre paternal and yelling like a maniac. Keaton oddly keeps his performance mid level when he should be chewing scenery and Jackie Earl Haley is wasted in a redundant second tier villain role.
While never quite reaching the lofty heights of Verhoven’s film, RoboCop is still an ambitous action thriller. It retains some of its predecessor’s wit, ramps up its action and celebrates its heart. This is what the Total Recall remake should have felt like.
– Tom Roe