BBFC Classification: 12
Director: José Padilha
Starring: Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Jackie Earle Haley, Abbie Cornish, Samuel L. Jackson
Uh-oh! It’s that dreaded ‘R’ word again; no, not RoboCop but… ahem… remake/reboot/reimagining or whatever ‘re’ prefix it is this week. Although in this case it isn’t that much of a surprise as RoboCop is a franchise that hasn’t been particularly well served since Paul Verhoeven’s original movie became an instant classic back in 1987, despite the massive potential that it had, so of course a remake has been on the cards for a while. However, remaking RoboCop was always going to be a difficult thing to do because of Paul Verhoeven’s unique satirical commentary and hyper-violent filmmaking style being such an integral part of the world that the titular character inhabited that many felt it couldn’t – or shouldn’t – be done.
Enter director José Padilha, who had impressed audiences the world over with his two Elite Squad movies; two exciting movies that mixed social commentary, political thriller and bloody action that basically scored the Brazilian-born director the job of bringing the cyborg lawman up-to-date, which he does admirably. The plot-points of the story are basically the same as the original – a good cop called Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman – The Killing) gets badly injured and his body used by an unscrupulous corporation in an experiment to make the ultimate law enforcement officer. But in this film the focus is less on what Murphy can do with his gadgets and weapons and more on whether it is actually still Murphy in the armour and how much of a part free will plays in his operation.
Which may not look too exciting on paper but good sci-fi has always been about ideas and on that level RoboCop 2014 is something of a success as there is a lot of time dedicated to not just the physical implications of Murphy’s fate – realised brilliantly in a heart-wrenching moment where the full extent of his injuries is made apparent – but also how the machine side of him affects his humanity and about how his consciousness influences the workings of his programming. The inclusion of his wife and son as substantial parts of the story fleshes out this approach and gives the film a lot more substance than your average man-against-machine action film, something that the original film only hinted at but never really followed up on.
But there isn’t just family-themed melodrama here as José Padilha obviously has a knack for setting up great action scenes, and the action here is quite stunning to look at, mainly because you can actually see what is happening and to whom, something that doesn’t happen too often when giant robots are involved. The teen-friendly rating doesn’t help when it comes to showing – or not showing – explicit gore but Padilha manages to keep the action exciting and engaging without resorting to the overuse of squibs. Yes, it would have been nice to have a bit more of the red stuff but that movie has already been made and this isn’t it. Sam Raimi proved that you can do edge-of-your-seat thrills and shocks for a teenage audience without having to resort to cheap gore with Drag Me to Hell so why not do the same with sci-fi action?
So there’s a bit of emotional depth, some intelligent sci-fi and a healthy dose of blood-pumping action but there is also a big flaw with RoboCop and that is the fact that it feels a bit too safe and, for use of a better word, nice. This may not be the fault of the director as apparently there was about another hour of footage shot but when the budget started escalating to nearly double what was originally put up then somebody at the studio had to step in and call a halt to proceedings. José Padilha has already gone on record to say that making the film wasn’t exactly the experience he was hoping for and there is a feeling of compromise throughout, in a similar way to Tim Burton’s Batman never really feeling like the director’s full vision, although in that case the film was an unequivocal success and the director was given free reign for the sequel. Don’t think that’ll happen here.
And speaking of Batman, there are a few nods to the Gotham Guardian in this movie, most notably the inclusion of Michael Keaton as Raymond Sellars, the CEO of OmniCorp. Keaton does well with what he is given to do – he also gets the best line with “Make him more tactical. Let’s go with black” with regards to RocoCop’s armour, something that the Dark Knight himself would surely approve of – although Sellars isn’t a classic bad guy, unlike Ronny Cox’s Dick Jones in the original, but rather a businessman driven to desperate measures, and Keaton being Keaton manages to be quite likeable despite not really trying to gain our sympathies. Fellow Batman alumnus Gary Oldman (alright, it’s a different Batman universe but it’s still Batman) plays Dr. Dennett Norton, the scientist responsible for the RoboCop programme, and although Oldman’s presence is a welcome one he never really goes above and beyond what the role requires.
As for the other cast, Jackie Earle Haley (A Nightmare on Elm Street/Watchmen) makes an impression as Rick Mattox, the man responsible for RoboCop’s tactical training, and does his best weasley asshole act, while Samuel L. Jackson is quite fun as Pat Novak, a right-wing television host who comments on world events and offers the closest thing to the satire of the original film. Joel Kinnaman plays RoboCop with exactly the right amount of humanity and machine-like physicalities, although he is less successful in the scenes where he is Alex Murphy, coming across as cold and quite unlikeable, unlike Peter Weller’s loving family man take on the character. Not that Kinnaman’s Murphy isn’t a family man – as he clearly is – but you’re never really sold on his character before he becomes RoboCop.
So overall, is RoboCop worth taking a look at? Yes, as it is a good film, but whether it stands up as a good remake is less clear. It does do things and go to places that the original movie didn’t, which is to be applauded, but once it is all over and the credits are rolling you cannot help but feel like you’ve just watched a tribute act rather than the real thing, albeit a very good tribute act. It’ll never replace the original as the definitive take on the character but it is a better film than what we – and that means all of us who watched the trailers and went “Meh” – expected and as a modern sci-fi action film it does what it needs to do. All in all, it’s the second best RoboCop film.
Special Features: Deleted scenes, Omnicorp Corporate videos, The Illusion of Free Will featurette, To Serve & Protect featurette, The Robocop Suit featurette, trailer.
UK Release Date: 9th June 2014