Starring: Joel Kinnaman (The Killing), Gary Oldman (Tinker Tailor Solider Spy), Michael Keaton (Batman), Samuel L. Jackson (Pulp Fiction), Abbie Cornish (Limitless), Jackie Earl Haley (Watchmen)
Director: José Padilha (Elite Squad)
Writer: Joshua Zetumer
Runtime: 1 hour 58 minutes
Release Date: 7 February (UK), 12 February (US)
Let’s make this very clear: Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop is one of my all-time favourite films. It has a classic story, OTT violence, is immensely quotable, and it’s all wrapped up in a nice bow of social satire. And like every classic movie nowadays, it’s now got a remake. Like many fans, I was initially wary. Why touch a classic when not only is it still good but still relevant? But, ever the optimist, I wasn’t going to demonise the product until I saw the entire thing. So strap in, because I’ve got a lot to say about this one. Dead or alive, this movie is getting reviewed.
To list the amount of changes made here would basically involve telling you the plot beat-by-beat, so I’m not going to do that. Some may read that statement and call blasphemy but to me, the best remakes take the core idea of the original film and build something new. I don’t want to watch an exact copy of RoboCop with a new cast and flashier effects (I’m looking at you, Kimberly Peirce’s Carrie). If you have to remake a film, I want to see something new done with the idea. Luckily, the filmmakers are smarter than this and have indeed crafted a different movie. Much like how Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) has enough of himself remaining to consider himself human, the remake of RoboCop has just enough elements of the original to make it seem like RoboCop. The plot itself does touch on a lot of the key beats of its ancestor, but changes enough to keep it fresh. Whilst I could certainly see where elements came from, there were also plenty of new ideas to stop me from knowing exactly where it was going. The film is well paced and doesn’t get dull, but on strictly a plot level it isn’t exactly revolutionary. Where the film shines is when it deals with the moral questions of putting a man inside a machine. Can he still live a normal life? What is his state of mind when he finds out? How much can he be controlled? Should he be controlled? All of these and more are brought up and it does add a layer of brains to the proceedings; it somewhat reminded me of ethical questions posed in more recent sci-fi like District 9 or Moon. The film is now as much about Murphy coming to terms with his predicament and trying to remain human as it is about avenging his own attempted murder. It’s an element that was glossed over in the original and whilst what they do with it does work, unfortunately the film doesn’t focus on it enough. Half of the movie is taken up by all the hubbub inside OmniCorp and, whilst this is where we get a lot of that ripe moral questioning, it takes away focus from our protagonist. For periods, the film seems to be as much about Dr. Dennett Norton (Oldman) and his moral dilemma as it is about Murphy. What is there is good, but the film feels a bit bloated and could have done with some streamlining. In terms of social satire, it is still there but not quite as blatant as the original. Most of this commentary is relegated to Pat Novak (Jackson), and whilst all of his bits are entertaining as they lampoon extreme conservative media, they factor very little into the narrative. The film’s other main jab is at the way corporations are run; how everything is about marketing, getting out the product out on time, and shrugging off the serious problems to do so. It’s these elements that help elevate the film past being just another blockbuster and, whilst it lacks the balls of the original film, it makes up for it in brains.
Choosing a new RoboCop must have been a daunting task. Finding someone who brought that subtle charisma and humanity that Peter Weller brought to the part couldn’t have been easy. Luckily, they decided to go in a slightly different direction. Joel Kinnaman’s Murphy is given much more opportunity to emote, and during these scenes he does well. There is a scene where Murphy, having just discovered what has happened to him, tearfully asks for the plug to be pulled on him. Completely immobile, Kinnaman has to deliver this scene using only his face and he surprisingly pulls it off despite how off-putting the visual is (I won’t spoil it, but some may find it chuckle worthy). This time around, Murphy slowly loses his humanity and as it goes along becomes more and more like the stoic, emotionless RoboCop that Weller’s was initially like. I enjoyed this element, as it both gives Kinnaman some range and again brings up those ethical issues. Whilst Weller will always be the true RoboCop, I respect Kinnaman’s efforts. The rest of the cast is filled with a team of all-stars, and for the most part they don’t phone it in. Gary Oldman’s Norton has been likened to Victor Frankenstein and it is an apt comparison. He is a man trapped in a situation that he’s struggling to control, a man who questions his orders but reluctantly goes along with them. Oldman’s presence not only gives the film a sense of respectability but he holds the emotional core of the film during the stretches where Kinnaman is absent. Michael Keaton’s Raymond Sellars serves a similar role to Ronny Cox’s Dick Jones, but is nowhere near as much of an out-and-out villain. Whereas Jones was all about staying on top, Sellars is a man who is trying to be the best he can be and just goes to far. Samuel L. Jackson channels Rush Limbaugh and other similar journalists to good effect in his performance but he feels a little underutilised, as do Jay Baruchel and Jennifer Ehle in their fun but small roles. Abbie Cornish gets a lot more screen time than her counterpart in the original, but I found her chemistry with Kinnaman was seriously lacking and she spends most of the movie crying. My only big casting problem has nothing to do with performance but I found it extremely puzzling: why is Lewis now a dude? Michael K. Williams is a fine enough actor, but why is Lewis now a dude? I guess you could argue that “well, the part of Lewis doesn’t need to a woman”, but that was the point. Lewis didn’t need to be a woman, but the fact that she was made her stand out more as a character than just being the partner. And if they really wanted to change Lewis to a guy, don’t call him Lewis. Other than Murphy, it’s the only name from the original that’s been kept anyway so what’s the point? It’s a change that does nothing but potentially piss off fanboys.
A lot of fuss has been made about how this new RoboCop is PG-13/12A when the original was a hard R/18, and after watching the film it is somewhat distracting. But thinking about it, I do think it is more than just a way of creating a larger audience. Verhoeven’s RoboCop was a comment on the amount of violence in movies at the time; it was about taking the American action movie and amping it up to ludicrous levels. That isn’t the goal of the new RoboCop, and so the tamer violence is still noticeable but it didn’t infuriate me (though I’m sure it’s not going to stop people from complaining). But what the action lacks in blood and guts, it makes up for with scale and speed. José Padilha’s work on the Elite Squad films shines through here, as the action scenes do have a good frenetic energy to them and the advances in technology since 1987 allows for the action to become extravagant. The new design of the RoboCop suit also drew some criticism, and this is a case where I do heartily agree. It is especially annoying because initially he does have an updated version of the original suit and it looks great. But then they stick him in that all-black number and it just looks dull. I get that it’s probably closer to a proper military product and the film does somewhat acknowledge the issue, but the new suit is just aesthetically unappealing. The music for the film is mostly pretty standard, but I do have to admit that the re-orchestrated version of the classic RoboCop theme put a nice big smile on my face.
And now comes the moment of truth. The moment where I cause sighs of relief for some and fits of rage from others: I like this new RoboCop. Is it as good as the original film? F*ck no! The original is a classic piece of cinema history and it always will be. But is this new RoboCop trying to be the original? No, it’s not. It takes the core concept of the original and does its own thing with it. It has some good action scenes, a mostly solid cast, some interesting and topical thoughts about where our world could be heading, and it also throws in some good references for the die-hard fans. It’s a different film and should be treated as such. Will all the fans be pleased? No, but that’s the nature of things. There are those willing to accept change and those who are not. If you love the original, it’s still there and as great as ever; the presence of this new one doesn’t mar its legacy in the slightest. But if you’re curious and go in knowing you’re in for something different, you may come out pleasantly surprised like I was. It’s not perfect, but just consider how much worse it could have been if not placed in the hands of people who care enough not to fart out a homogenised and pointless film. My only advice to them at this point: if you make a sequel, keep Frank Miller as far away as humanly possible.
FINAL VERDICT: 7.5/10