It is impossible for me to review Jose Padilha’s new RoboCop reboot without acknowledging the similarities and separations that exist between this film and Paul Verhoeven’s original. While there are many allusions to the 1987 masterpiece, there is also some new subject matter, and a new cast of characters. Some of it works, some of it doesn’t.
In the new movie, the main character, Officer Alex J. Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), is a tough-talking no-nonsense loose cannon of a cop. He loves his family no less than the original Murphy (played by Peter Weller), but seems to enjoy his job less; although he takes it just as seriously. This time around, his partner, Lewis is also black man (Michael K. Williams / The Wire and Boardwalk Empire). It’s kind of sad to see a complete lack of strong female figures in this incarnation. The closest that the new version has to offer, in terms of strong female representation, is a corrupt police officer and a devoted widow. Both characters play supporting roles that do not add much value to the film.
Much like in the Verhoven movie, this reimagining features many cutaways to news reports. These almost exclusively feature Samuel L. Jackson‘s character — program host, Pat Novak — preaching in favor of adopting the use of drones and robots to police U.S. cities. While much of his role is utilized satirically, there is also something very disturbing about witnessing American robots patrolling the streets of Tehran. In an early scene, a group of rebels attacks the robots with the direct purpose of being massacred live on television. For a science fiction picture, it seems hard to believe that they would write this, as a news channel might be monitored by the F.C.C. and possibly not allowed to broadcast the entire mêlée on air. Also, live TV isn’t what it used to be, and this film seems to think that TV broadcasts carry the same social sway that they did back in the 20th century. It feels like some nod to social media would have made the media scenes a more credible interpretation of the future.
As in the first RoboCop, officer Murphy is set up to become a victim of violent crime. However, in this version, he is intentionally car bombed, rather than murdered by a shotgun-wielding firing squad. The guy who car bombs him is less memorable than even a low-level henchman from the first film, and the lack of morally repugnant-yet-highly-motivated street slime is one of the disappointing aspects of the 2014 reboot.
Rather than developing the street villains, Padilha focuses on the character development of the scientist who transforms Murphy into RoboCop. Unlike in the first movie, where all of the science related decisions appear to be controlled by calculated business moves — “lose the arm,” “erase his memory,” etc. — the doctor, played by Gary Oldman in the 2014 RoboCop, seems to want to keep the officer’s memory and personality intact, fighting for morality and his right to intellectual freedom. Some of the science seems well stated, but a lot of the dialogue about RoboCop’s “soul,” along with the senate hearings about robots’ morality and lack thereof, are wooden and predictable. At one point, I even found myself saying a line, almost word for word, before it was ever spoken on screen. And, it wasn’t even a cool line; it was just some cliché about… the soul. That being said, it was cool to show Alex Murphy coming to grips with the fact that he was now RoboCop — although the scene that involves him trying to escape the high-tech science facility, which was literally bordering rural Chinese rice farmers, was a bit stereotypical and unnecessary.
Fast forward to the testing of Murphy‘s new skills, and one of the bad guys introduced is a combat robot developer, played by Jackie Earl Haley (The Bad News Bears, Watchmen), who gives RoboCop the annoying nickname, “Tinman.” Not very cool, funny, menacing, or original. The character is something like a present day U.S. Marine stereotype, and he adds very little to the film. He kind of reminds me of the villain in Avatar, for what that’s worth.
After going through a makeover that includes ditching the classic silver armor for an all-black suit, the cybernetic Murphy is introduced to the Detroit public, and, within a minute, makes his first arrest. One of the best new developments is that Padilha’s RoboCop is capable of instantly access all police cameras and databases, so that he can scan people’s faces and spot criminals at a fast speed. This is something that adds value, because, in 1987 when the first motion picture came out, the internet was not mainstream and such a development may not have been possible. At the same time, the lack of the internet led to a great scene where RoboCop used his data accessing key to flip someone off. Another twist to being able to access and process all of the police’s files is that Murphy is able to spot corruption. This holds certain implications to solving his own bombing that lead all the way up to the top of Omnicorps – a branch of O.C.P., the villainous corporation from the original. This was one very clever addition to the story line.
What the new version lacks in areas of character, boring villains, no flaws for the towering ED209 law enforcement droids, and a humorless RoboCop, it makes up for in action, effects, and plot (although the cliché-heavy dialog seems to take something away from all of those). At the end of the day, the movie fails to be completely subversive, and looks something like a propaganda film, but tries to push an anti-drone message. Thankfully, the 2014 RoboCop reboot is a film with a story that employs a liberal use of top-quality robot vs cyborg fights to tell it. It’s worth the watch, but uneven at best.