Review: ROBOCOP (2014)

After 2012’s boring, CG-heavy, cinematic nap that was TOTAL RECALL, Sony Pictures delivers us another remake of a Paul Verhoeven satire:  the long-gestating ‘upgrade’ of ROBOCOP. Brazilian director Jose Padila has fared better than Len Wiseman’s Mars-less mess, but sadly not by any great distance.

The early signs for a ROBOCOP upgrade weren’t great: when director Darren Aronofsky (BLACK SWAN, PI) - the man whose involvement piqued everybody’s interest in the remake – left, that interest waned,  and Padila (who made a splash some years back with his ELITE SQUAD movies) was confronted with a tougher-than-usual task for his first big Hollywood project. What certainly remained promising was his cast – the man in the cyborg suit, Joel Kinnaman (from the original Swedish version of THE KILLING) might be unfamiliar, but the producers have cannily filled out the supporting roles with solid, often scenery-chewing actors: Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Jackie Earle Haley, Michael K. Williams, Abbie Cornish, Jennifer Ehle, Jay Baruchel, Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Samuel L. Jackson. Maybe this was going to be funny and subversive after all?

The answer is, frustratingly, yes and no. Jackson opens the show strongly as a right wing TV talk show host, bemoaning the lack of fully robotic and drone law enforcement in the USA when it’s being used so ‘successfully’ for foreign policy. We’re then treated to some ethically questionable robot-on-terrorist carnage that would have Bill O’Reilly/Andrew Bolt/The Daily Mail rubbing themselves with excitement, and for a moment we get something reasonably approximating the tone of Verhoeven’s original.

Sadly though, it’s short lived. The humour pretty much dries up thereafter, save for a couple more scenes from Jackson dotted throughout. We’re left with a rather straight, numb re-tread - sure, there's familiar lines peppered into the dialogue, and occasionally Basil Poledouris' main theme gets a blaring from the speakers every now and then, but it seems all the more like lip service when several of the more interesting themes and twists from the original are ironed over or excised completely.

In this 2028, American voters still want people policing them, so ruthless Omnicorp (who build the robots and drones) decide upon a compromise. Their prayers seem answered when Detroit detective Alex Murphy (Kinnaman) is blown apart by a car bomb. Mrs Murphy (Cornish) is talked into signing the release forms, et voila: Murphy is reborn as crime fighting cyborg. Trouble is, he’s Omnicorp’s crime-fighting cyborg.

Predictably, Verhoeven’s gleefully OTT ultraviolence is gone, much to the detriment of what was classic villain Clarence Boddicker, now dull baddie Antoine Vallon. Inexplicably though, someone chose to diminish the film’s most crucial theme: that of Murphy’s free will, and his struggle to become more man than machine. It’s a bizarre omission for a film that at one point brazenly plays the WIZARD OF OZ tune “If I Only Had A Heart”. Oh the irony, indeed.

It's not all bad news: the jackhammer-subtle message about privately owned corporations controlling government services is still an enjoyable one, and in the moment (short as they may be) the action sequences are nicely handled, and the 'videogame look' criticism isn't valid in this instance, seeing as the 1987 original inspired the look of first person shooter games in the first place. The CG effects are generally solid, and of all things the sound design is actually one of ROBOCOP’s main strengths. The supporting cast do bring everything they can – Oldman as the scientist questioning his ethics, Keaton as the shifty CEO, Haley as the malevolent militant, Ehle as the cold lawyer, Baruchel as the slimy marketing weasel (although Williams is strangely uncomfortable as Murphy’s partner), but ultimately this is the safe, sterile, franchise set-up we had hoped to avoid; the difference in poster taglines says it all - how does "Crime has a new enemy" even begin to compare to "Part Man. Part Machine. All Cop."?

When it comes to Paul Verhoeven, they really don’t make ‘em like they used to. God help us when they get to SHOWGIRLS.

ROBOCOP (2014) is released February 6th in Australia and New Zealand, February 7yh in the UK and February 12th in the USA.