Gotta feel a little sorry for director José Padilha, tasked with taking over an action-classic remake that had been stuck in development for years — and that fans of the much-admired original eyed with considerable skepticism.
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But let's also be honest for a moment about the movie Padilha is revisiting: Paul Verhoeven's 1987 RoboCop, a B movie punching far above its weight, with some cheekily subversive Establishment-tweaking and brilliantly executed subtext buried under some truly clunky performances and stock '80s action. In short: There was plenty of room for improvement. And in taking advantage of that, Padilha's new take on the material isn't the disaster some might have predicted.
It doesn't hurt that Padilha and screenwriter Joshua Zetumer have even more fertile political material to work with in 2014. Verhoeven's film had no shortage of targets — among them rampant crime, corruption, the vapidity of media and entertainment, and corporate greed. The update manages to work with all of those while also taking high-caliber shots at drone warfare, flag-waving cable-news talking heads and the vulnerability of legislators to money and marketing.
The basic story is the same: Detroit cop Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), recently all but killed in the line of duty, is rebuilt as a cyborg crime fighter by a huge corporation looking to mine the city's out-of-control crime troubles for profit. As before, nearly everyone involved is crooked in one way or another, and it's up to our metallic hero to find the humanity still tangled up amid the circuitry that's so thoroughly clouding his brain functions, so he can clean up more than just the city's streets.
Around that core, the biggest improvement is in the performances — no surprise, with names like Michael Keaton and Gary Oldman at the top of the cast list. Keaton plays conniving OmniCorp head honcho Raymond Sellars, Oldman the morally compromised biomechanics visionary Dr. Dennett Norton; it's the battle of wills between these two men that really drives this new RoboCop, with Murphy as a kind of hulking rag doll being pulled in both directions by the competing needs of commerce and science.
Keaton brings a smug but personable arrogance to his role — just the kind of charismatic sliminess it requires — while Oldman is the movie's wobbly moral center, a good man corrupted by circumstance and weakness. Norton is a doctor who wants funding to further research and develop mechanical prosthetics, but Sellars cares only about using the scientist's successes to influence legislation that would let him supply fully automated crime-control drones to the government. The CEO's primary ally is Mattox (Jackie Earl Haley), a robot tactician who finds RoboCop a laughable project — like his boss, he favors pure robotics over the cyborg approach.
All those political threads are on point, but the film is strongest when it's wrestling with notions of what it really means to be human — this after Murphy has been reduced to literally nothing more than a head, heart and lungs encased in a metal shell. (The big reveal of his true physical state is an eye-opening effect.) If the undercurrent of the story has echoes of Frankenstein, Mattox sees Murphy as nothing more than a hollow Tin Man, and underlines his derision with a nicely deployed rendition of "If I Only Had a Heart" during a key training sequence.
Even with those excellent performances, augmented by a fantastically entertaining Samuel L. Jackson as a wild-eyed right-wing TV political host, there's still something about Padilha's RoboCop that feels cold and distant. Part of the charm of the original was its raggedness, its embrace of a B-movie aesthetic in the service of smart, dark satire. Padilha's take is almost all business, as grimly efficient at getting its points across as Murphy himself is during the period when his handlers have suppressed his emotions entirely.
It's well made, polished, and hits every mark — but is it crazy to want a futuristic sci-fi action flick about a motorcycle-riding metal supercop to be just a little more fun?