The late 1980s was an ideal time for Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven’s original sci-fi techno-crime thriller ‘Robocop’ to make its presence known in the cynical age of Reagan-era law enforcement protocol. As a cheesy escapist flick that expressed satirical commentary about the dark and dysfunctional state of authoritative Big Brother-type politics in crime and punishment, Verhoeven’s 1987 super-charged fantasy fable about a half-mechanical man brought to life in an effort to effectively enforce street justice was a delightfully devilish concept. RoboCop was a cyborg Dirty Harry if you will…a robotic roughneck with an itchy trigger finger ready to dispense his brand of urban comeuppance. In short, ‘RoboCop’ reflected its skeptical times with an energetic off-the-cuff outlandishness that captured the entertaining mischievousness of hedonistic moviegoers.
However, nearly two decades into the new millennium we are reacquainted with our favorite metal-plated crimefighter in Brazilian director Jose Padilha’s updated version in 2014’s ‘RoboCop’. Sure, Padilha’s shiny and technologically enhanced remake boasts a big name cast, eye-popping special effects, a hip modern-day ultra-violent vibe and a sense of voyeuristic giddiness. Still, the current ‘RoboCop’ feels desperately compromised by its hyper-randomness while never conveying a solid or cohesive premise about its purpose outside of being just another toothless and big-budgeted glossy crime caper. Padilha’s sleek shoot ’em up is conventionally all over the map while failing to inject anything substantially subversive or observant.
The year is 2028 and the world has accepted the routine practice of placing robotic military personnel on their police forces. However, the United States is the exception to this worldwide rule and has not experienced such a phenomenon as of yet. The mastermind behind the global concept of arming the police departments with these robot law enforcers is OmniCorp. The reluctance for the USA to embrace such radical law and order procedures is rooted in concerns of accountability and the unpredictability of badge-wearing machine men with the go-ahead to kill without sufficient monitoring. OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) reassures the American public and US government that to ease their worries a bit they can still partake in this unique policing matter if they would place a trusting man inside a machine to assume this preventive crime technique. The question remains: who will the man be to take on this experimental role?
Enter Detroit cop Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman from TV’s ‘The Killing’). The targeted Murphy and his partner (Michael K. Williams) are severely maimed after their attempts at exposing the nefarious activities of the elusive local arms dealing crime lord. The woefully injured Murphy, with the permission of his loving wife Clara (Abbie Cornish) via some convincing pleading by the opportunistic Sellars, is set to be the human element inside the machine suit. Incidentally, Dr. Dennet Norton (Gary Oldman) is behind the designed machinery outfit that the disfigured and disabled Murphy will operate in the name of upholding the law. Now christened RoboCop, Murphy gradually becomes a sensational crime resolver in spite of the novelty factor pertaining to his existence.
In due time, things start to get rather complicated for Murphy/RoboCop when he decides to go off script and administer his own brand of vengeance. Dr. Norton finds it hard to control the nature of his ‘creation’ as Robocop now has a score to settle with an assortment of baddies. Specifically, this means very unappetising news for the scheming Sellars because RoboCop’s roguish tendencies could mean him threatening to piece together OmniCorp’s corrosive business dealings with his criminal comrades. Thus Sellars, with assistance from right hand man Mattox (Jackie Earle Haley), has to eradicate the menacing RoboCop at any cost. Otherwise, it could spell financial disaster for the powerhouse OmniCorp and the materialistic interests of Sellars’s business empire.
Basically, ‘RoboCop’ takes on more than it can chew in terms of the rotating sub-plots that feel relentlessly labored and cluttered. The movie tries to balance its many identities without skillfully settling on one main plot and making it stick to its balanced tension. In trying to rattle off the various angles, ‘RoboCop’ morphs into a bowl of bland beef stew – lots of ingredients but no consistent taste in its overall consumption. Cliched samples of police corruption, corporate naughtiness, police officer’s revenge, governmental red tape, conspiracy theories and villain-of-the-moment swaggering – it is a bunch of aimless fodder that sadly spearheads this fueled futuristic farce. Padilha was better off conceiving ‘RoboCop’ as a straight-shooting generic actioner as opposed to tossing a string of empty gesture concepts in one bombastic ball and hoping that something clings to its wall of cardboard creativity.
As Murphy/RoboCop, Kinnaman seems curiously invisible and is inexplicably upstaged by his better known castmates. Peter Weller’s take on yesteryear’s RoboCop was at least somewhat stimulating yet the boyish-looking Kinneman registers with all the excitement of a bratty boy scout armed with a rusty jack-knife. Some rather notable veteran performers are piled in the storyline for display such as Keaton, Haley, Oldman and Cornish but they are not given much to make their distinctive marks. It is understandable to include the enjoyably toxic Samuel L. Jackson into the frivolous fray, in this instance as a flag-waving, outspoken right-wing TV commentator, but even his explosive bit seems out of sync with the rest of the movie.
Nostalgically, Verhoeven’s techno-tough guy peace officer was an acceptable outcast that oddly had something to say about its off-the-wall skepticism in wayward handcuffing administrative foreplay. For Padilha’s run-of-the-mill ‘RoboCop’, the metal-head crime-stopper is barely worth his arresting appeal.
STARRING: Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael K. Williams, Michael Keaton, Samuel L. Jackson, Abbie Cornish, Jackie Earle Haley and Jay Baruchel
DIRECTED BY: Jose Padilha
SCREENPLAY BY: Joshua Zetumer
MPAA RATING: PG-13
RUNNING TIME: 118 mins.
DISTRIBUTED BY: Sony Pictures Releasing
CRITIC’S RATING: ** stars (out of 4 stars)