Review: 'RoboCop' Remake is Lowbrow and Messy But Still Entertains
by Jeremy Kirk
February 12, 2014
Don't be fooled into laying a false sense of infallibility to the RoboCop franchise. Two dreadful sequels and a short-lived TV series that was even worse - not to mention the WCW Wrestling appearance and Japanese chicken endorsement - makes it so that a remake is not the worst thing imaginable for the half-man/half-machine/all-cop character. But any forewarning is moot when it comes to the RoboCop remake, a noticeably tamer but still entertaining take on the story that, despite its dip into idiocy, still makes an attempt at the satirical subtext that places the original film in such high regard. Like the character, the film is clunky, but when all its pieces are in motion, it's a more enjoyable thrill than this series possibly deserves. More below!
The remake carries over the same, basic premise as the original film. Set in Detroit in 2028, crime and corruption are running rampant with good police officers putting themselves in harm's way to clean up the mess. OmniCorp, a multinational conglomerate that has a hand in military weapons manufacturing, wants to put a Robotic officer on American streets just as it has to keep foreign countries in check. However, the American population is unsure of something non-human enforcing their laws, and OmniCorp begins the hunt for a perfect half-man/half-machine candidate.
Enter Alex Murphy, played by "The Killing" star Joel Kinnaman, one of those decent cops who is absolutely in harm's way. After a car bomb leaves Murphy unable to survive on his own, OmniCorp takes ownership of his body, using the pieces of him that are unharmed to create that perfect police officer. But, as the doctors and executives of OmniCorp are about to find out, the human side of that perfect officer is going to make him very difficult to control.
As you already know it is currently 2014, and remake or reboot of a franchise is going to start with what ultimately amounts to an origin story. Here again, we have the RoboCop origin, from decent, family-man police officer to a crime-fighting machine battling with his human demons. Fortunately, this origin film written by Joshua Zetumer and directed by José Padilha (the Brazilian Elite Squad series) has a few surprises and change-ups hidden up its mechanical arm.
Much of this version of RoboCop focuses on the doctors working on the machine, led here by Gary Oldman as Dr. Dennett Norton. Norton, a fine gray-area character, fights his own internal battle between serving his fellow man as any good doctor should do and serving his employer, OmniCorp and its cool-but-corporate head, Raymond Sellars, played by Michael Keaton. While the excitement increases with the action, the boardroom battles and laboratory debates keep the story from ever growing stale. There's nothing new derived in what RoboCop 2014 has to say, but at least it's making an effort to say it.
Padilha's action makes an effort, as well, though the PG-13 film's skew towards bloodlessness is obvious. That doesn't hurt the action the most here, though. The intensity in Padilha's gunfights comes more from what you hear than what you see, his shaky-cam work never going completely into indiscernible territory but keeps you constantly trying to work out the geography of it all. The director chooses to shoot one particular scene in the dark, flashes of muzzle fire giving us a strobe-light effect on the action at hand. It's cool, but Kick-Ass did the same thing with better results.
This version of RoboCop is more interested in the debate on the character's humanity rather than wall-to-wall bullets and explosions. The action is consistent, though it peaks with the opening scene, but the further we get into the film, the less it realizes it has to say. Every effort to make it a big Summer blockbuster - the film was originally set to release last August - is made in the third act, but it all ends up a jumbled mess of robotic close-ups and a final confrontation that is more than a little underwhelming.
The acting is superior to what a run-of-the-mill remake deserves, as well, Kinnaman bringing the suitable amount of charm to Murphy. He does the same for RoboCop. The character is much more internally conflicted in this film than he is in the original, and Kinnaman offers up a run of emotions that keeps the mechanical creation well in the humanistic light. Is it sacrilege to say he's better than Peter Weller? Maybe, but that conversation is well-deserved.
Outside the leading man circle, Keaton and Oldman are spot-on in their respective roles. Keaton has always been a charismatic actor who lets his darker side play around a bit when it's called for. The same goes for Oldman, who contrarily is playing the more moralistic character here. Each actor brings a raw intensity to the part that is rarely found otherwise in this film, and though they are far from being the only merits RoboCop has to offer, they are certainly the best. Other supporting parts such as Jackie Earle Haley as a corporate soldier, Abbie Cornish as Murphy's grief-stricken wife, and Samuel L. Jackson as an energetic and eccentric reporter are all worth noting. Jackson's role is the one that pushes RoboCop's political subtext along, and the actor seems to be having a blast in his "fair and balanced" portrayal.
It was always going to be an uphill climb for a RoboCop remake. That seems to be the case with pretty much any remake that gets announced these days, but unlike most remakes, this RoboCop is interested in more than just rehashing everything we've seen in the series before. Even Padilha's odd choices when it comes to the film's music cues are unexpected, The Wizard of Oz's "If I Only Had a Brain" and The Clash's take on "I Fought the Law" being a few of the stranger selections.
It is, at the very least, unexpected, and in a day and age where Hollywood remakes are perfectly content with playing paint-by-numbers, the RoboCop remake is attempting to show us something new. It doesn't exceed on brains and at times becomes messy in all the wrong ways, but there is much RoboCop has to offer to the action junky. You can't say the same for most of the rest of this franchise.
Jeremy's Rating: 7.5 out of 10
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