By Gary Dowell
When Jose Padhila’s RoboCop remake/reboot was announced two years ago it was met with a chorus of jeers so fervent they bordered on cries of “Heresy!”. Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi action spectacle is a cult classic, and as such it has a slightly over-inflated reputation. It certainly remains clever and groundbreaking, but in all fairness it was a product of its time and of its director, drenched in ’80s excess and wrapped in Verhoeven’s signature brand of hyper-violence and twisted humor. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. In fact, those things make it one of the best satires of the Me Decade. And let’s be honest: The subsequent sequels, TV series, cartoon series, video games, and comic book spin-offs (anyone remember RoboCop vs. the Terminator?) long ago turned it into as much of a commodity as every other franchise of its ilk.
Believe it or not, Padhila has found new territory to mine and arguably justifies a remake. However, if the original erred on the side of under-developing its core premise then Padhila goes too far in the other direction. He meticulously strips the original down to its core parts, rebuilds it into something sleeker and flashier, and adds in some modifications along the way. What we get is a cerebral a very compelling cyberpunkish techno-thriller that is big on ideas but doesn’t much feel like its predecessor — and that will be the biggest hang-up for die-hard fans.
Joel Kinnaman (The Killing) succeeds Peter Weller as Alex Murphy, an ace cop patrolling the mean streets of near-future Detroit. There are some minor and major tweaks to the original plot. Murphy is now an undercover detective chasing illegal arms dealers and his partner Lewis is now played by The Wire’s Michael K. Williams. His wife and kid don’t conveniently disappear after the first act, but the key points are still the same: Murphy gets wasted by bad guys, revived in a cyborg body as the ultimate police officer, and struggles to maintain his humanity over his programming while (literally) blasting through layers of corruption. The original’s deep vein of cynicism is left largely intact as well, embodied as a jingoistic, blowhard TV pundit played zeal by Samuel L. Jackson under an epic wig.
If there was one problem with the first RoboCop, it was that Verhoeven and company glossed over the sticky bio-ethics and undeniable trauma that would come with being resurrected as a fragment of a man encased in a machine. Padhila and screenwriter Joshua Zetumer dive into this missed opportunity head-first and milk it for all its worth. As scientist Dr. Norton (Gary Oldman) and OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) literally rebuild Murphy from the ground up, putting him through lots of R&D and focus groups to make him both family friendly and intimidating. Norton, like most Frankensteinian scientists, is too obsessed with his work to consider its ethical implications. Sellars, like most sleazy celluloid CEOs, is too obsessed with making a quick buck to care about ethics at all. A lot of time and detail are spent on Murphy’s transformation (in one slyly subversive gag it’s revealed that RoboCop is, of course, made in China), training, adjustment to his new body, and later his attempts to reconnect with his family as well as his dwindling humanity. There are some unexpected bits of body-horror throw in along the way including a reveal of just how extensive Murphy’s reconstruction is that pushes the envelope of the movie’s PG-13 rating. That said, it’s still a PG-13 and a soft one at that. One starts to pine for the cartoony ultra-violence that made the original so damn surreal.
If anything, Padhila and company spend too much time on the details, to the extent that RoboCop drags a bit during its middle portion as it obsesses over the, ahem, nuts and bolts of the character. It verges on being over-plotted as it works in commentary on foreign policy, domestic politics, media bias, privatized law enforcement, and an increasingly digital world. It’s a smarter movie, but you may still miss the dumb humor of its forebearer.
None of which means RoboCop 2.0 is a bad movie. It is a highly watchable bit of sci-fi pulp, character driven and graced with a ridiculously fine cast that also includes Abbie Cornish, Jackie Earl Haley, Jay Baruchel, and Jennifer Ehle. The trademark flourishes that brought Padhila to worldwide attention via Elite Squad and its sequel are present. Especially during one stylish firefight sequence. More importantly, like Murphy, it retains its heart after being broken down and rebuilt.