Action Crime

Part Man, Part Film Review: RoboCop (2014)

February 12, 2014Ben MK

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By Ben Mk

You don't mess with perfection. But when the original is a perfect amalgam of satirical sociopolitical commentary and gritty sci-fi action, how can you resist? Viewed from that perspective, José Padilha's reboot of Paul Verhoeven's 1987 masterpiece, RoboCop, has been a long time coming. The 2014 version of RoboCop contemporizes the story by folding in elements of the debate surrounding drone warfare — but at its core, it's still a tale of a badass cop with a badass robotic body, in search of his humanity while tackling crime head-on in a futuristic Detroit run amok with corruption.

So, how does the newer model RoboCop fare alongside the original? The short answer is: quite favorably. Though it's been outfitted with a necessarily modern sensibility, the story embodies the same satirical spirit as Verhoeven's original, echoing its central themes and retaining the key elements that make it identifiable as RoboCop more than in name only. As with Verhoeven's film, the focus lies on the man behind the visor — dedicated cop Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), a man devoted to his family and to upholding the oath he was sworn to, and his quest to regain his humanity after becoming the product known as RoboCop.

And like its 1987 counterpart, a megacorporation looms large over everything in the film. This time, that company isn't OCP (Omni Consumer Products), it's their subsidiary, OmniCorp — the world's foremost manufacturer of military drone technology in 2028. Hellbent on deploying their flagship robotic drones (the hulking ED-209 and the more humanoid EM-208) stateside, its CEO, Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), and his marketing team (Jennifer Ehle and Jay Baruchel) devise the RC-2000 program. As a ploy to convince the American public that OmniCorp's products are capable of conscious thought and sway Senate voting on a bill that could see their drones barred from use on US soil, its success — and, ultimately, the continued survival of the company — hinges on the right man being put into the machine. When Murphy is all but killed as a result of he and his partner's efforts to root out corruption within the ranks of the Detroit Police Department, Sellars believes he's found that man. However, despite efforts to control him by OmniCorp's best and brightest, including well-meaning doctor Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), Sellars soon realizes that they've grossly misjudged the human factor in their new product. And when Murphy defies his programming in an attempt to solve his own attempted murder, threatening to upheave their plans, he becomes OmniCorp public enemy number one.

The film's satirical overtones are ratcheted up by the overarching commentary of Samuel L. Jackson's character, Pat Novak, and his show, The Novak Element. Riffing on right-wing media — in particular, the Fox News channel and its show, The O'Reilly Factor — Novak acts as the film's loud-mouthed (and occasionally foul-mouthed) voice of self-awareness, not only imparting a sense of humor on events but also bringing some relatability to them, effectively helping to bridge the gap between the present day and the film's world of 2028.

Fans of the original will also notice the many winks and nods to the world of RoboCop 1987 peppered throughout Padilha's version. The fan service extends beyond the film's Detroit setting, with highlights being a reprise of the classic RoboCop theme, the inclusion of cult-favorite mech, ED-209, line references ("I wouldn't buy that for a dollar!") and even a rendition of the original RoboCop's fourth directive (which finds its contemporary counterpart in the new RoboCop's programmed inability to harm "Red Assets"). But that's where the similarities end. For the most part, Padilha and screenwriter Joshua Zetumer forge their own unique take on RoboCop — a faster-paced, more action-oriented (and less violence-oriented) iteration of the character. Aside from familiar names like Murphy and Lewis, there aren't any Dick Joneses or Clarence J. Boddickers to be found — though elements of those characters are certainly present in Keaton's portrayal of Sellars, and in characters like Jackie Earl Haley's military tactician, Rick Mattox, and Patrick Garrow's villainous Antoine Vallon. Yet, with all the effort expended on action, the film still finds time (and justly so) to focus on Murphy's emotional and physical vulnerabilities, as in a scene where he gazes upon his disembodied visage, removed from the RoboCop suit, for the first time.

The film also shines a light on aspects that were only glossed on in Verhoeven's classic, while reshaping other story points completely. Murphy's wife, Clara (Abbie Cornish), and son, David (John Paul Ruttan), are much more in the thick of things this go round. And the dynamic between Murphy and his police partner, Jack Lewis (Michael K. Williams), is a grittier take on the Murphy-Lewis relationship first brought to the screen by Peter Weller and Nancy Allen — with Kinnaman and Williams bringing some serious street cred to their characters, following from their respective roles on AMC's The Killing and HBO's The Wire. And then there's the new, more "tactical" (as Sellars puts it), black RoboCop suit. Once a sore spot for RoboCop fans, its presence in the film proves not to be as jarring as anticipated, once you realize that the color change serves as a metaphor for Murphy's loss of humanity.

The Bottom Line

While it doesn't quite eclipse the unique vision established twenty-seven years ago, the new RoboCop does achieve something remarkable: it gives audiences a fresh perspective on the character while staying true to the intentions of the original, and it does so without retreading old territory. The film is better than any remake deserves to be, and even though it trades over-the-top violence for over-the-top action, it doesn't pander to audiences. Instead, it manages to be a smart piece of popcorn cinema, emboldened with an acute sense of self-awareness and a satirical edge that's sure to both appease longtime fans and attract new ones. [★★★★]

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