Updating a recognised, revered and cherished sci-fi classic is a thankless task which often ensures that the director in question will end up on a hiding to nothing; however I’m sure it’s the kind of job that pays well and presumably opens up many future opportunities for the person in charge, so long as money is made. I can see the appeal, particularly for foreign filmmakers wishing to step onto the Hollywood merry-go-round; re-inventing the original Robocop with mixed results here (and making a healthy profit to boot) is the Brazilian Elite Squad director José Padilha, with he’s-so-hot-right-now Joel Kinnaman taking over from Peter Weller as Alex Murphy, the cop-turned-tin-man whose job is to protect and serve the people of Detroit.
Franchise reboots often (rightly) arouse suspicion and cynicism, and naturally the announcement that Paul Verhoeven’s inventive, iconic, witty and brutally violent original was being remade led to outraged cries from both hardcore and casual fans alike. But this is the movie business and the 1987 Robocop isn’t some kind of sacred cow or sacrosanct work: if the idea of a Robocop remake is the kind of thing that gets your blood boiling then you probably need to take a good long look at the world, and hopefully you will start to worry about something else more worthwhile. Let’s face it, within the next 10 or 15 years we’ll probably see remakes of Back To The Future, Beverley Hills Cop, Gremlins and many more of those 80s classics.
Obviously Padilha’s film was always going to be compared to Verhoeven’s upon completion and release, and of course it is inferior, predictably lacking the satirical bite, the ferocious and bloody action, the memorable pack of villains and many other elements that made the original such a triumph. However it isn’t a complete duffer, and if you’re able to forget about the 1987 film – difficult given the similar plot, costume and some shared themes – I dare say you will enjoy it. Padilha’s film is mildly entertaining, even if it does fall apart at the end.
There are, thankfully, attempts by screenwriter Joshua Zetumer to create a modern spin on the satire of the original screenplay. Verhoeven and writer Edward Neumeier broadly attacked Reaganism and 1980s America by criticising and lampooning news media, TV shows, corporations, foreign policy, rampant privatisation, capitalist greed and gentrification, and Zetumer also picks several of those subjects as his targets. The 2014 film, set in 2028, begins with scenes that show OmniCorp’s robot army patrolling the streets of Tehran. Residents are afraid and have taken to suicide bombings to fight the invasion (a negative stereotype that caused a degree of outrage when the remake hit cinemas, particularly in Iran). It’s a thinly-veiled criticism of recent real life military campaigns conducted abroad, and the presence of Samuel L Jackson as a right-wing TV agitator quickly establishes the mocking tone, as he comically explains how grateful the Iranian people are with barefaced spin before revealing his own desire to see a robotic police force on the streets of American cities. Left-wing opponents are outraged, and there are repeated suggestions that US citizens aren’t ready for empathy-free, utterly ruthless law enforcement, at which point you expect to see both the writer and the director pop up in the background winking away to the audience.
Jackson has an important role here, and is tasked with delivering the satirical bite of the original more than any of the other actors. He pops up at regular intervals, talking directly to camera, and while his scenes lack the comic impact of Verhoeven and Neumeier’s amusing spoof adverts and fake news reports, it’s still an effective send-up of Glenn Beck-style commentators. There’s a particularly amusing moment where he presides over a live debate between OmniCorp’s CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton, miscast as the villain of the piece) and his political opponent, cutting the politician off mid-point.
All of this confirms something we all know anyway. Some high-profile talking heads and news networks are politically-biased, but it’s hardly groundbreaking, and unfortunately there’s a lack of sneering contempt during the Jackson scenes that betrays the fact this is a safer, more gentle screenplay. This remake fails to tap into the same strand of anarchy (both comic and in the more usual sense of the word) that ran through the original and lacks its rampant nihilism and the links to exploitation cinema. All the roughness of the original, all its nastiness and chaos, has disappeared, and it has been replaced by the sleek, shiny order of the modern-day blockbuster: where Robocop once shot a potential rapist in the balls, for example, he now tasers wanted murderers so that they can be tried fairly. Of course in the real world this would be progress, but we’re not talking about the real world.
Nowhere is the gulf between the verve of the two films more apparent than with regard to the film’s villains. The 1987 Robocop juggled six odious characters successfully, including Ronny Cox’s ruthless CEO, Miguel Ferrer’s slimy careerist and Kurtwood Smith’s deranged kingpin, and the 2014 equivalents do not even come close to matching their earlier counterparts. Padilha and Zetumer attempt to incorporate a similarly large number of bad guys, but not one of them is remotely memorable: there’s a Clarence Boddicker equivalent but he is barely seen before he meets his maker, while Murphy’s dealings with a couple of corrupt cops elicits a shrug at best. Jackie Earle Haley occasionally pops up as an arrogant ex-military tactician, now working for OmniCorp, but he ends up trying too hard to make an impact. Faring worst of all is Keaton: an inherently likeable actor, his CEO spends most of the movie as an approachable, pleasant guy (even if he is driven by greed and a desire to aggressively expand his business) before undergoing a barely-credible turnaround in the final act.
It’s not all bad. There’s a fresh score but the original soundtrack by Basil Poledouris is used sporadically and Padilha’s Robocop features the kind of precision-shooting action and hi-tech gadgetry that you would expect, plus there’s a meaty supporting role for Gary Oldman (the only actor here with a playful smirk on his face). Michael K. Williams makes as much as he can of a scaled-down ‘cop partner’ part (Lewis, once Murphy’s love interest when played by Nancy Allen), while Abbie Cornish and John Paul Ruttan tick the necessary boxes as Murphy’s wife and Adorable Moppet Son. The number of supporting actors (fleshed out by the likes of Jay Baruchel and Jennifer Ehle) suggests a lack of confidence somewhere along the line in either the character of Robocop, or the ability of Kinnaman to sell this film on his own, which is a shame as the lead actor makes a decent stab of it: something about the lower half of Peter Weller’s face just looked right, but Kinnaman’s physical performance is fine, and he accurately replicates the character’s mix of robotic swiftness and awkward steps and turns.
Overall, this is one of those remakes that seems better than it probably is because it isn’t as bad as it could have been. On the flipside it has probably received more stick than it deserves from some quarters simply because it is not as good as the original film (though I guess that’s fair enough if you’re blowing $120 million on something). Personally I feel ambivalent about it: I don’t think it’s awful, and while this isn’t a bad way to spend two hours, the fact is time would be better spent re-watching Verhoeven’s original.
Directed by: José Padilha.
Written by: Joshua Zetumer. Based on Robocop by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner.
Starring: Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Abbie Cornish, Samuel L Jackson, Michael K. Williams, Jay Baruchel, Jennifer Ehle, Jackie Earle Haley.
Cinematography: Lula Carvalho.
Editing: Daniel Rezende, Peter McNulty.
Music: Pedro Bromfman.
Running Time: 118 minutes.