“Robocop” Proves That More Is Less

Robocop

Robocop (José Padilha, 2014)

Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 Robocop was a masterful blend of violent action thriller and social satire. The film slyly flash-forwarded to a world where the proposed privatization of government functions proposed in the Reagan era had reached its apotheosis, where a major metropolitan area – Detroit – was effectively managed by a stateless corporation, beholden to no one. It showed us crony capitalism and greed at its most disturbing, all the while delivering one heck of a rush. Talk about having your cake and eating it, too: Verhoeven had – at that time – the great knack of embedding subversive subtext in works that, at first glance, appeared to be the most frivolous of confections. He did it again in Total Recall and tried to do it again in Basic Instinct, though by then he had been corrupted by the very fascist aesthetic he had once lampooned (which actually helped his Starship Troopers, but not the unwatchable Showgirls). In our current era of war-fought-by-mercenaries and financial crises where the top brass escapes accountability, we can look back at Verhoeven’s film and recognize its prescience.

The new Robocop, directed by José Padilha – a Brazilian filmmaker known primarily for his documentaries – tries for some of the same biting cultural commentary (albeit tailored for our current era), but never quite comes together as well as Verhoeven’s original. And though it has a (very) few good action sequences, it also mostly fails as a thriller. Whenever I watch a remake, reboot and/or sequel, I ask myself whether the film truly has a valid raison d’être: does it add something to the story, such as a fresh take or important character development, to make the enterprise worth it? The interesting thing here is that first-time screenwriter Joshua Zetumer (co-credited with the writers of the first film) does make a lot of changes, and adds significant back story to the life of the protagonist – super cop Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnamon from “The Killing“) – yet it somehow all adds up to less than the sum of its parts, not more.

Robocop opens and closes with Samuel L. Jackson as Pat Novak, a bombastic faux-patriot television host of the Fox News variety, and he functions throughout the film as a sort of twisted Greek chorus, commenting on the action with a sneer in his voice at every turn. It’s a wildly unsubtle performance, and when Jackson finally utters his trademark curse towards the end, it’s hard to wonder if Padilha didn’t cast him just so he could get that one punchline out of him. Whatever the reason, Jackson epitomizes the problems of the film: there may be more story, but it’s all exposition rather than action, and all dull, as a result. He also represents the director’s inability to set a consistent tone. The very first sounds of the movie are played underneath the MGM Roaring Lion Logo: instead of a roar, we hear what turns out to be Jackson’s Novak doing pre-broadcast vocal warm-ups. Yeah, it’s funny (sort of), but what does it have to do with the rest of the story?

Beyond Jackson, the cast is fairly watchable. Kinnamon holds his own as Murphy, though he lacks the jawline that helped make Peter Weller’s cyborg so visually memorable. Michael K. Williams (Omar from “The Wire“) is on hand as his partner, Lewis (played by Nancy Allen in the original), and Abbie Cornish (Bright StarStop-Loss) – a fine actress who deserves more – plays Murphy’s wife. Michael Keaton, Gary Oldman, Jennifer Ehle, Jay Baruchel, and even Marianne Jean-Baptiste (the daughter in Secrets and Lies) round out the cast. Most do a fine job, and Keaton – as the corporate baddie – is fun to see strut his stuff. But nothing helps this misguided reboot rise above the mediocre.

For those of you unfamiliar with Robocop 1.0, here’s the skinny: Alex Murphy is a fine Detroit detective who gets too close to some very nasty gangsters, and is targeted for extermination. After a car bomb nearly kills him, his body is rushed to a high-tech lab. Murphy’s brain and vital organs are saved, but not much else, and after his wife gives consent, he is turned into an experimental cyborg. When he finally emerges from his induced coma, he must learn to adapt to a world in which he is part man, part machine (or, really, part computer). While he deals with this existential crisis, he is brought back to Detroit to fight crime (and help Keaton’s corporation sell similar military robots to the nation). Once he starts investigating his own murder, however, he uncovers a sinister plot that may – get this – lead all the way to the top . . .

I would forgive most of the story issues if the film were at least more successful as an action picture, but it (mostly) fails to deliver on those goods, as well. Perhaps it’s the fact that Kinnamon and Cornish spend so much time crying, rather than fighting, or that most of the battles look as if they were ripped off from the latest combat video games, but there isn’t a whole lot of tension in the air in the few moments when bullets actually fly. So go see the film if you must, and if you temper your expectations (and haven’t seen the 1987 original), you may enjoy yourself more than I did. Good luck!

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