ROBOCOP Review

Sometimes it seems critics are so intent on seeing themselves as more intelligent than popular entertainment, above it in many regards, that they cannot help but look for what might be implausible in those big action movies that, the majority of the time, do in fact place explosions over intelligence. At this point though, that is an age old argument and I think studios have come to realize that audiences know better than to accept big, expensive action flicks for what they are, but that we have come to expect a little more from our movies. It doesn't necessarily have to be biting satire, social commentary or even a story that breaks any new ground, but what we do expect is something that someone somewhere seems to have put a good amount of thought and effort into creating that, preferably, comes from a single point of vision as to why this feature should exist. Those last stipulations are especially true when we come to something like a re-make of a classic film that many people will brush off from the moment its greenlit or will immediately dismiss as never being able to live up to the original. With Robocop, one did have to wonder what more could there be to the idea of re-making the 1987 Paul Verhoeven classic other than to rip-off the well-known brand-name that would hopefully assure butts in the seats opening weekend? It would naturally be taken as nothing more than a cash grab initially, something that, like Robocop himself, was put together by a committee of studio execs looking through old properties that could turn a profit in todays market and hey, science fiction has been hot lately so why not go for it? While I never had much affection for the original film (it came out the year I was born) and because I couldn't really watch it given the R-rating and gratuitous violence until many years later I came to view it more as a fun, little 80's flick with a guy in a cool suit rather than appreciate it as many seem to that were old enough to enjoy it in its heyday. That being said, I didn't walk in with horribly low expectations, but I knew the story, knew the likelihood of why this was produced and therefore knew not to expect much, but after the great introduction to this new world we get from Pat Novak aka Samuel L. Jackson I began to slip comfortably into enjoyment and let those critical inhibitions go to where the implausibilities and plot hang-ups disappeared and I was simply having fun.

Detective Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) becomes Robocop at the hands of Dr. Norton (Gary Oldman).
Working on his first feature screenplay, Joshua Zetumer, has successfully transitioned the story of the original film into a more present context that keeps the spirit of the original film at least intact while changing up the mechanics that allow the story to follow its own course. Director José Padilha (Elite Squad) relays a palpable energy that seems to come along with working on his first big-budget feature and you can feel it not only through the sleek character and set design, but in the way the film flows, the implied style and tone that is consistent throughout and the themes it is keen on exploring that are both a gift and curse to the narrative. We are introduced to a not too distant future where the United States and more specifically Raymond Sellars (a full on oily Michael Keaton playing it for all its worth) and his company OmniCorp have developed robot enforcers that are keeping the peace overseas and not costing the lives of American soldiers or even putting them in danger. Still, the American people have not been able to accept the idea of a non-human making the decision of who pulls the trigger, who evaluates a situation on more than who is threatening or not. Naturally, Sellars is looking for a way to bypass the Dreyfuss Act, a roadblock put in place by a senator and are unable to pass up the opportunity when the idea of putting a man inside one of their advanced suits comes up. Detroit police officer Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman of The Killing) just so happens to be a suitable candidate for the job as he's recently been the target of an attack by local gang members that he and his partner, Jack (Michael K. Williams), were looking to infiltrate. When Murphy's wife, Clara (Abbie Cornish) signs off on the experimental surgery, it being the only real hope for Murphy to continue living, he is put in the trusted hands of Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman). Norton, though keen on pointing out to his boss Sellars that he was not brought in to work on combat technology is the key to integrating this human being into the machine and making it as much about the advanced capabilities that machine will provide as it is giving the consciousness and soul within Murphy a place to stand proud.

The balancing act of trying to accommodate the mixed feelings of the American people is where a fair amount of the films debate comes from and the development and exploration of this issue is ultimately what drives the narrative rather than what  the action-oriented premise would indicate. Yes, there are plenty of gun fights and intense moments, but because there is plenty of time devoted to the motivation behind these characters actions and details into how the games are played to keep the country as a whole in line with the moral code we'd all like to believe we're following and the debate that inherently stirs, there is much more weight to the final twenty or so minutes even if the plot does become somewhat convoluted and the point of the amount of gunplay a little lost. When we meet Oldman's character he is infusing life and raw emotion into an amputee that believes he will never be able to play guitar again. We watch, in wonder really, as his new mechanical arms respond to the brains commands and strums a piece on the strings. It sounds natural, it begins to feel natural and in that moment Padilha is able to capture the essence of what will need to be accomplished in order for Robocop to be acceptable with the portion of the general public that is afraid of change. It is in these stages of experimentation that the story really grabbed me. Whereas the original was a more straightforward revenge story where Murphy was quickly chosen and suited up with no guidelines to tip toe around when it came to public opinion and no family to concern himself with once the transformation was complete, the new Robocop doesn't erase the memory of Murphy but instead allows his family to be the only reason he survives, even placing the accident that nearly kills him right outside their home. This was always one of the elements that bothered me about the original, that it didn't deal with the complicated relationship that might come of our protagonist now being more machine than man and how it would interfere with a personal life, but that version never meant for him to retain parts of his consciousness and this one does, this re-make gives that clarification the entire reason it should exist and for me, that works. There seem numerous other avenues we could discuss when commenting on the social commentary the film provides, but while it doesn't have the sting of satire that the original flaunted, it keeps things topical and thus interesting in a way that a movie about a guy dressed in a metal suit had no right to be.            

The CEO of OmniCorp, Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), awaits the introduction of RoboCop.
It also doesn't hurt the production that there is some truly credible work being done here. Not only do Keaton and Oldman stand as interesting character actors that bring raw talent and charisma to what are otherwise stock characters, but even in their entourages we get the likes of Jay Baruchel as the young up and coming head of marketing who takes his cues from Sellars and is all the more smarmy for doing so. There is Jackie Earle Haley as Rick Mattox, who heads up the field robots in play and isn't especially taken with the thought of putting a man inside one of his machines though it may just be due to the fact he wishes it was him that was granted the opportunity and not Murphy. Haley doesn't have much to do, but his inherent loathsome attitude serve his characters purpose immediately and we see how his small role may become a bigger problem down the road. Beyond that there is also Jennifer Ehle whose name you may not find familiar but does consistently interesting work and it is simply a pleasure to see her pop up here. The real surprise here for me though was Kinnaman whose work I haven't seen before. He brings just the right amount of austere to his pre-Robocop self that we are able to take him more seriously and his struggles and confusions with more earnestness than we would if his persona had been more indulgent or extravagant in his day to day duties as a police officer. He is able to carry the picture with little more than the expressions on his face, peaking out of his helmet, but he does it well and he makes us feel all the emotion and heartache that is overwhelming him every time he sees his son or his own reflection.

While a remake of Robocop may not have ever been something that was really necessary there is enough support here from the screenwriting, direction and the performances it holds that we find reason to see why adapting the story of technology advancing beyond our imagination may even be more prevalent today than I assume it might have been in 1987. This is pure, B-movie fun and I enjoyed myself immensely despite the fact that the film carries a gift and curse in its storyline where allowing that precious time to develop characters and explore the numerous themes at play does cost them the opportunity to play up a specific bad guy or lay out a certain mission that we feel the hero must accomplish by the end of the film in order for us to feel satisfied, but rather these incidents feel shoe-horned in with that necessary action-packed finale that is ultimately under-developed. I would have much rather seen the philosophical debate played out on a worldwide scale where Dr. Norton continues to question what he has created in the title character and how far Sellars is willing to go to turn a product into a success an not lose money whether it costs him lives or not. I would have much rather seen how the no doubt entertaining debates between Jackson's character and the opposing Senator played out, but that was not to happen as the film (and likely the studio) simply couldn't stand the thought of anything less than a spectacularly expensive third act. Sure, Robocop does eventually devolve into exactly what you expect it to be, but that isn't the case through entire course of the film and that it didn't immediately result to copying the original completely, but rather struck out on its own path and played by its own rules while still throwing in a few nods here and there to let those afraid of what this might have been know it hasn't forgotten its roots.