Reviews

RoboCop (2014)

3

The robot reboot serves up morals and quarrels

Hollywood is courting Elite Squad director José Padilha. They offer several reboots: would Padilha prefer The Magnificent Seven or Hercules? But the room contains a poster of Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 sci-fi classic RoboCop. “Do you guys own the rights to that?” Padilha asks.

So RoboCop v2.0 was born, according to this disc’s Making Of featurette. Like Verhoeven, Padilha brings a foreigner’s critique, applying the political edge of his Brazilian films to American culture. It’s an honourable modernisation, only failing in comparison because Padilha lacks his predecessor’s punkish spirit. While key elements of RoboCop ’87 re-appear (one-liners, the theme tune, ED-209), Padilha’s remit is to emphasise what Verhoeven left out. At its most obvious, that means giving Alex Murphy (The Killing’s Joel Kinnaman) a wife and son in more than just flashback sequences, hardwiring the theme of free will to a familiar familial tune.

Elsewhere, though, it means focusing on the ethics of man vs machine, a smart move given contemporary unease over drone technology and state surveillance. It’s no coincidence that second billing goes to Gary Oldman, playing RoboCop’s creator, as Padilha explores the pros and cons of merging synapse and steel. Many new decisions pay off. Fanboy complaints about the sleek black suit, for example, evaporate on discovering it’s a satire on Apple-era branding – iRoboCop – devised by Michael Keaton’s crooked OmniCorp boss.

Yet Padilha’s cerebral approach creates an unusually talky blockbuster. Unlike Verhoeven’s restless, smash-and-grab iconoclasm, Padilha patiently teases out themes to the point of overkill. The difference is most notable in the cutaways. Verhoeven bombarded us with outrageous, iconic spoofs but Padilha sticks to just one: Samuel L. Jackson’s bug-eyed, bilespewing Fox News-esque anchorman. It’s almost too real to be funny, compared to Verhoeven’s cartoonish bluntness, especially given that Keaton isn’t evil enough compared to Ronny Cox’s land-grabbing, psycho-associating villain in ’87.

Similarly, what action remains has a surgical efficiency that suits the quasi-realistic mood, yet seldom gets the blood racing. Kinnaman’s sincerity contrasts nicely with original Murphy Peter Weller’s world-weary cynicism, but risks blandness. And is a sequence in China commenting on outsourced manufacturing, or a sop to Hollywood’s biggest export market? It’s a respectful take. Trouble is, Verhoeven’s was entirely disrespectful. By contrast, this is more machine than man.

Extras, like the film, are mildly interesting: a brief Making Of, featurettes on Murphy’s suit and weaponry, and deleted scenes, which include a ghoulish explanation for why Murphy’s right hand wasn’t robotised.

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