It’s no surprise that Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 classic Robocop would be ripe for a Hollywood remake down the line. It’s only surprising that it took until 2014 to take a crack at it. It’s fair to say expectations were never that high for José Padilha’s adaptation but it’s still probably better than most anticipated. Despite that mild praise, it offers nothing new for the character and is only slightly elevated above pure mediocrity due to its talented cast.
Joel Kinnaman stars as Alex Murphy, a cop in a 2028 Detroit who becomes embroiled with crime lord Antoine Vallon (Patrick Garrow) who may or may not be involved with dirty cops. But he goes too far, and a hit is put on his life in the form of an exploding car in his driveway. Concurrently, OmniCorp has been developing robot soldiers for use overseas, but which have so far been banned in America through an act passed by Congress. OmniCorp’s CEO Ramond Sellars (Michael Keaton) is looking for a way to break into the U.S. market and decides the way to change America’s mind is to create a robot that still has a human mind. That’s where Murphy comes in.
It’s not too difficult to see where the story goes from here. There’s an underdeveloped sub-story of what it means to be human (a question asked better by Her), which is also wrapped up with how Murphy’s transformation affects his family, wife Clara (Abbie Cornish) and son David (John Paul Ruttan). Unfortunately, the family side of things is also underwhelming and treads on thin ice. Aside from Murphy being the kind of good cop that frequently gets into trouble for sniffing out danger, nothing is known about him or his wife.
Padilha and writer Joshua Zetumar also look to inject some of the satire that made the original so much more than just a gory action flick. But it only comes in the form of Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson), host of The Novak Element, whose presence begins the film and who pops up from time to time as an increasingly biased voice supporting the use of OmniCorp’s robot soldiers in America. Jackson, looking a lot like his character from Unbreakable and channeling the anger from Django Unchained, is amusing (as he always is) but his piece feels forced and doesn’t gel with the rest of the film’s tone, which is dry and unable to drum up the depth of emotion it wants to have.
As with everything post-Batman Begins, directors strive for a neo-reality in most comic book and superhero films. What most don’t seem to understand is that Christopher Nolan’s vision fit his character and story. What worked best about Verhoeven’s film was that it’s over-the-top goriness was undercut by a subtle satire that became more and more apparent and worked in the favor of its 1980’s cheesiness. Padilha wants to retain some of that but it doesn’t translate when it’s obvious that he’s more interest in just creating another in a long, long line of loud and flashy action movies.
While not a total disaster, it will be but a footnote to Verhoeven’s original. Kinnaman does what he can with the character, and that’s not much. Gary Oldman is another sight for sore eyes as Murphy’s chief scientist who doesn’t fully believe in what OmniCorp is pushing him to do. It’s Michael Keaton who really steals the show, however, and proves that he’s not only a convincing villain but an actor who should be commanding better material. For those looking for something to whet the action appetite, there are worse choices on a Friday night but there are also so many better ones.
Rating: 3 out of 5