It seems a foregone conclusion that a remake of Robocop would fall short of Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 original. And yet, watching the result, it seems that the movie’s greatest sin is not being the original. No, it’s not perfect, and maybe not even quite as good as Verhoeven’s, but José Padilha serves up a perfectly good action thriller with just as much to say as its predecessor.
The story beats are largely the same, but with a few key shifts. The company offering to save crime-ravaged Detroit is not Omni Consumer Products, but OmniCorp — led by Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) — which makes the bulk of its money selling robotic soldiers to the U.S. military, which is currently using them to lay down the law in Tehran, among possibly other foreign endeavors. Immediately, we’re not talking so much about all-consuming corporate power as about the military-industrial complex.
We’re also not talking about the dumbing-down of entertainment; Bixby Snyder’s leering has been replaced by The Novak Element: a cable news commentary show hosted by right-wing pundit Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson), who is outraged that the American public won’t allow robots to police our own streets the way we police everyone else’s. And so we’re also talking about the news media in particular, as well as the very real militarization of American police forces, which was never really a point in the original.
So again we’ve got a top-notch cop in Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) who suspects corruption in the police as he chases down drug kingpin Antoine Valland (Patrick Garrow) until Valland nearly kills him, this time with a car bomb. Alex is saved and rebuilt by OmniCorp’s resident genius cyberneticist Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) — a name-check to philosopher of consciousness Daniel Dennett.
OmniCorp’s military tactician Rick Mattox (Jackie Earle Haley) scorns the idea of putting a man inside the machine, but it seems necessary to get around the objection that only human judgement is good enough in questions of life and death. And he’s right that looping the control flow through Murphy’s human brain slows the system down to the point it’s not sufficiently effective. Norton instead tricks the brain into thinking it’s making the decisions, when the control is actually completely automated. Then, when the Detroit police database is too much for Murphy to cope with, Norton chemically cranks down his emotional response to the point he doesn’t even respond to his own wife (Abbie Cornish) and child. Both of these make Murphy closer and closer to a robot himself, and they touch on real breakthroughs in neuroscience and psychopharmacology that raise some serious questions about how our human minds actually behave.
The action is fine for the most part. No, it doesn’t have the overwhelming use of blood squibs that the original was famous for, but I never really cared for them all that much, nor for the silliness about the ED-209s on stairs.
It’s also missing Kurtwood Smith’s Clarence Boddicker, which is one real step down in my book; Garrow just can’t compare, especially with how the part was cut back. I’d also have liked to learn that Novak’s network was owned by the same parent company as OmniCorp, but that’s a missed opportunity of both films.
If you’re a die-hard fan of Verhoeven’s RoboCop, Padilha’s is probably not going to cut it for you. But if you’re not automatically against a remake from the get-go, this one has a fair bit to offer.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.