Pity poor José Padilha. Not only did he earn the scorn and suspicion of the entire internet by signing up to direct this remake of Paul Verhoeven’s memorably savage sci-fi satire (taking over from Darren Aronofsky), but he must now endure the final product being measured up to its classic 1987 predecessor. The comparison inevitably doesn’t do his version many favours, but neither is it the total write-off many wanted or expected. In fact, ROBOCOP 2.0 emerges as the second best ROBOCOP movie ever made; but then after so many dud sequels and TV spin-offs, that wasn’t a terribly difficult accomplishment.
Comparisons with the original are entirely warranted of course, but perhaps a more useful yardstick here is another remake of a blood-soaked Eighties hit, 2013’s EVIL DEAD (which cunningly dropped the ‘The’ from the title, to throw people off the scent). Both films hired an up and coming talent as director and brought the old story bang up to date with a new cast of characters, offering a fresh perspective on familiar themes while retaining a few nuggets for long-time devoted fans. And in both cases, this calculated exercise in relaunching a dormant franchise property has met with mixed success.
On the surface there is evidence that careful thought has gone in to making the updated story stand apart sufficiently from the original to justify its existence; the new versions make more sense to a contemporary audience with little or no memory of the original. But both films feel more anonymous that their original incarnations, lacking the distinctive personal touch their directors brought, and fumble the ball in a couple of crucial areas which prevent them from rising above the level of “not bad”.
…for a film called ROBOCOP, is this really RoboCop?
There are some interesting ideas in ROBOCOP 2.0 that thoughtfully build on the original’s satirical swipe at Reagan-era business and media. In place of the original’s crass gameshows and commercials (“I’d buy that for a dollar!”) there is crass news commentator Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson, having fun away from Marvel Studios), a thinly veiled composite of the sort of right-wing loonies that pop up on channels like Fox News.
A US occupation of Tehran (probably the most daring thing the script does) has been achieved through the use of drones and other robots like the ED-209s – virtually unchanged from their lumbering 1987 iteration – which has, according to Novak, brought peace and harmony to troubled places all over the world, except “robophobic” America. He wants these droids deployed on home turf, as does their owner, OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), who can almost taste the gazillions in profits his company stands to make. The problem for him is the Senate has outlawed any such move and public opinion is against him. In a bid to win over US voters he wants a law-enforcing robot that people can connect with, which leads him to Gary Oldman’s kindly scientist, and when honest cop Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is gravely injured, the RoboCop project is born.
So the satire is there, if far less caustic than under Verhoeven’s watch. The performances are mostly good too, particularly Oldman as the sympathetic scientist trying to do the best by his patient. And the action is polished and fairly exciting; it’s great to see the ED-209s given the benefit of a digital makeover, while Robo’s new duds are pretty sweet, even if they do make him look a bit too similar to the Dark Knight when riding on his tricked out motorbike.
But weighed against that are a couple of significant flaws. Murphy’s sidekick Lewis, an unusually strong female role in the original played by Nancy Allen, is disappointingly changed to yet another male cop, and fails to register much of a presence. Murphy’s ‘death’ doesn’t generate the same impact either; the original film’s violent Christ-like slaughter is dispensed with in favour of a car bomb, which makes his quest for vengeance far more impersonal.
And crucially, for a film called ROBOCOP, is this really RoboCop? Most of the time it’s just Murphy. The internal struggle between man and machine is largely sidelined in favour of Murphy’s struggle to protect his family, which is just a teensy bit of a cop out. It has fun with the central idea – the suggestion that he is the Wizard of Oz’s Tin Man in search of a heart crops us a few times – but Murphy remains a blank slate, not helped by Kinnaman’s performance which is rather robotic even before he’s been blown up. Which neatly sums up this reboot: good looking, professional, but in need of a personality injection.