“Dead or alive, you’re coming with me”
Robocop, the robot cop, finds himself in a unique predicament. It’s been decades since a decent movie has carried his name, and now that he’s back, it’s as part of the Hollywood Remake Machine. The violence is toned down to fit a PG-13 rating, and Robo now rides an unfortunately bro-tastic motorcycle, but the question remains: can this movie about a corporate product avoid being one itself?
The fear that Columbia and MGM are resurrecting a beloved Sci-Fi icon for a quick buck has been somewhat mitigated by an inspired choice of director, Jose Padilha, the man behind his native Brazil’s excellent Elite Squad films. Like the original Robocop, Elite Squad presents a fleshed-out world in which corruption among police and politicians make the introduction of a new, extreme, violent anti-crime unit not an unreasonably extreme measure, but the only option. Unfortunately, try as he might, and his effort is apparent, the bastards ultimately forced out a product, not unlike Robocop himself.
Let’s begin with the good. Robocop 2014 presents a grounded and plausible near-future in which we’re all monitored and can be tracked down at anytime. The paranoid newsman (played by Samuel L. Jackson, or is it Lawrence Fishburne?) is a national superstar who advances the agenda of his corporate masters under the pretense of patriotism and safety. Suicide bombers in “Sunny Tehran” detonate themselves, not for maximum casualties, but so that it is captured by the news cameras, and artificially intelligent robots perpetuate imperialistic foreign policy while almost completely avoiding any risk to American lives, thereby quashing any desire to change. It’s great sci-fi, complete with familiar imagery, realistic-but-exaggerated, and it’s the only aspect of the movie which completely works.
Joel Kinnaman (The Killing) plays Alex Murphy, who, with a little help from a car bomb and the science powers of Gary Oldman, becomes the world’s first cyborg cop. The twist for the remake is that the boss of Omnicorp (Michael Keaton, channeling the slime Bruce Wayne would be if he never became Batman) tries to convince the public that Murphy is alive and in control inside the suit while the truth may not quite be so simple. Murphy’s arc is an endless zigzag of man vs machine, of retaining his humanity as a robot, then losing it, then gaining it again, ad nauseum, until the end of the movie, by which point nobody cares anymore. Although Kinnaman fills the suit very nicely and is a solid choice for the role, very little past the first act of the script calls for an actor of his skill. While Robocop, the character, has more overt of a soul than his 1987 counterpart, the same cannot be said for the movie itself; whether he’s following leads to solve his own attempted murder, bouncing between humanity and cold efficiency like an emotional pinball, or trying to ignore his nagging crying mess of a wife, the main body of the film is as boring and emotionless as a bad Law & Order episode.
This Robocop is armed with a lethal submachine gun and a non-lethal stun gun. Considering nobody ever bleeds when they get hurt, (except for Murphy’s own presumably robotic face) this means that there’s no difference in the film between a lethal and non-lethal hit. While that may be nit-picking, the change in the Sergeant Lewis character is not. In the original film, Murphy’s partner was Anne Lewis. While played by the beautiful Nancy Allen, Lewis was, first and last, a cop. Her gender is never addressed, only her profession; a progressive move, and a staple of director Paul Verhoeven. In Robocop 2014, Murphy’s parter is JACK Lewis, played by Michael K. Williams (The Wire, Boardwalk Empire), that black guy with the crazy scar on his face, who, after Murphy returns from the dead with his black robot body, remarks with the admittedly-good line, “At least you’re the right color now.” The message, reinforced by Murphy’s wife (whose role is greatly ‘expanded’ from her almost completely non-existent role in the original and who spends almost her entire time on-screen crying, whining, or otherwise uselessly contributing to the film’s 121 minute runtime) is that women belong at home. While there are a few other female characters, such as the eternally under-utilized Jennifer Ehle, they are either ice queens or so thinly-written they barely qualify as characters. There should have been a lot more with Murphy’s boss, played by Marianne Jean-Baptiste; her best scenes were probably left on the cutting room floor in favor of close-ups of tears falling down Abbie Cornish’s face.
Jose Padilha tried. He really tried. He’s a great director bound by the shackles of the Hollywood Remake Machine. He tries and succeeds injects life into the background of dead scenes, and his cast seem to be working with him, giving their best (particularly Jackson and Oldman) to a movie they want to succeed. But the Hollywood Remake Machine is about making money on safe products. The original Robocop was made on a budget of thirteen million dollars, which, even adjusted for inflation, amounts to less than thirty million dollars. Even if it had bombed, the losses wouldn’t have been crippling to Orion pictures (remember them?); Robocop 2014 cost at least $130 million, and Columbia/MGM weren’t willing to take any chances, have any fun, or create any art. They want a mass-marketable product they can sell to overseas territories, just like OCP wanted to sell the ED-209 to military industrial complexes around the world.
Despite flashes of heart, soul, and even genuine sci-fi brilliance, Padilha lost his battle and Robocop 2014 is ultimately little more than a corporate product.