As a child of the 80s, RoboCop holds a special place in my heart. Growing up, the popular culture that I ravenously consumed was full of hot-shot police officers disobeying strict police lieutenants, being forced to turn in their badges, and yet still finding a way to track down the bad guys before the credits rolled. The 80s also brought a technology boom that popularized the concept of robots, androids, and cyborgs in science fiction cartoons. The inevitable blending of the two trends gave me not only 1987’s RoboCop movie, but also the Saturday morning cartoon and action figure line that followed. I still remember lazy childhood days where RoboCop, the Karate Kid, Chuck Norris, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles teamed up in my bedroom to face army after army of generic plastic villains and hoodlums.
Like many children of the 80s, I’ve seen my beloved childhood memories hauled out of antiquity, dusted off, and re-imagined in reboot after reboot in recent years, often with disappointing results. So, when the inevitably RoboCop remake was announced, I vividly remember dueling emotions, the unbridled, giddy joy of my inner child clashing with the cynical disdain of my inner man-child. No remake could ever replace the 1987 film that played such a pivotal role in my childhood, or match the often satirical tone that I’ve come to appreciate as an adult. I say all of this as a disclaimer, not only for the review that follows, but as a reflection of what I expect to be the the views of audiences as a whole. As much as I plan on divorcing the remake from my views on the original as I craft my review, I know that many movie-goers will not be able to make the same distinction.
Let’s cut to the chase, then; the new RoboCop is not as good as the original, but when graded on its own merits, it isn’t a terrible film. Sure, RoboCop is not without its faults, and ultimately, I can’t argue with those that would dismiss it as pointless or superficial. That said, there’s something to be said for a film where you can check your brain at the door and simply enjoy the ride, and RoboCop fills this niche adequately.
The new RoboCop features Joel Kinnaman as Alex Murphy, a reckless Detroit police officer who allows haste and emotions to cloud his better judgement. After stumbling upon a link between his own precinct and an organized crime ring, Murphy is gravely wounded and left for dead. Fortunately for him, multinational company OmniCorp, lead by CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), wants to use Dr. Dennett Norton’s (Gary Oldman) advanced cybernetic technology to rebuild Murphy as the police officer of the future. Unfortunately for Murphy, OmniCorp’s motivations are not altruistic in nature; by crafting a hero out of Murphy, OmniCorp hopes to sway public opinion to defeat a congressional act that would outlaw the highly profitable robotic war machines that OmniCorp has dispatched to other countries.
With this premise, it is pretty easy to predict the path of the narrative. RoboCop doesn’t throw any sucker punches, with telegraphed movies that even casual film-goers should see coming a mile away. The familiarity of the script isn’t the problem, though; in fact, if executed properly, a familiar, straight-forward script can still deliver a highly credible end product. RoboCop never quite reaches this level of quality, often jumping from plot point to plot point to check off the narrative boxes. One particularly egregious example of clumsy script writing came shortly after Murphy’s transformation into his robotic alter-ego; Murphy quickly jumps from being awkwardly unsure about his new body to a gun-slinging crime fighting machine. I would have loved to have seen Murphy’s emotional transformation, to have seen more of the man behind the steel visor. We get some of this, sure, but it is abbreviated and hurried along, perhaps out of a fear that audiences might lose faith in a movie that delays too long between explosions. Also frustrating is the choppy set of explanations used to shift the film into its final act; while the first two-thirds of the film show quite a bit of promise, the slap-dash finale is forced and uninspired.
Perhaps the chief culprit in this film’s lack of humanity comes from the performance by Joel Kinnaman, who never quite finds the right balance between angry cop, loving father, and broken man. Kinnaman performs the monotone, droning robotic sequences quite well, and I would imagine that this is why he was cast in the role to begin with; still, I would have loved to have seen him craft a stronger protagonist for me to cheer on.
Here comes the part of the review where I make an obvious statement, everyone nods their head in agreement, completely unsurprised by the opinion I am about to assert: Gary Oldman was fantastic as Dr. Dennett Norton. Oldman’s ability to convey the nuanced duality of a scientific forward thinker struggling against his own ethical constraints provide many of RoboCop’s most engaging scenes. Perhaps less obvious is the degree of skill which Michael Keaton brings to his performance, crafting a character who never quite comes across as loathsome no matter how transparent his motives may be.
RoboCop half-heartedly tries to draw parallels between the unmanned war machines that OmniCorp produces and the drones that have been the center of many recent controversies as drone strikes on foreign increase in frequency. Relatively inexperienced director José Padilha also wants to make a statement about the role of the media as a mouthpiece for companies, showcasing a woefully miscast Samuel L. Jackson as a media hype man whose stories bias heavily in favor of OmniCorp. These attempts at deeper meaning are appreciated even if the attempts fall painfully short of their target.
Of course, most audiences aren’t going to see RoboCop because of an expectation for social allegory; they want to see high-octane action sequences featuring a half-man, half-machine, 100% badass cop enacting swift and brutal justice on the mean streets of Detroit. For the most part, RoboCop’s action sequences deliver, featuring exciting gun battles and fast-paced motorcycle action. That said, one of the fight sequences caused me a few moments of discomfort, featuring flickering lights and a shaky camera that caused a brief moment of motion sickness to strike me. I’m usually in possession of a steely constitution when it comes to sequences like this, so to those of you prone to motion sickness or nausea, consider yourself warned.
As far as remakes go, RoboCop is very easily in the middle of the pack. Neither the intent nor the execution are a disservice to the original, and with a bit more polish, the film could have left a stronger impression. Still, this is the type of film that does not need to reinvent the genre or bring anything new to the table to be successful. When viewed as nothing more than a disposable action flick, RoboCop is harmless at worst, and even borders on good at times. If you can keep your expectations in check, and are looking for an action-packed movie to watch with a group of friends on a Saturday night, you could do much worse than RoboCop.
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