Robocop 2014 starts with a bang and they keep on coming. It’s a well-acted movie of a reasonable length and has the requisite number of explosions, body-count and testosterone of your average action movie.
But is it Robocop?
Certainly there is a cop who is turned into a robot. So that’s a tick right there.
Is the environment the same as the original? Yes, and more. We open in Tehran, because that’s where all gung-ho people want America to go, to pacify the population and weed-out terrorists. We find out Detroit, is a hotbed of drugs and violence. So, the same as the original.
And finally, we have OmniCorp, the company that holds the secrets of robotic soldiering, but which has been prevented thus-far from putting robots on American soil by a pesky law.
Here’s where the new movie diverges from the original, and there’s good and bad in this decision.
The good is that, frankly, you can’t just copy the original movie. This is the same decision the makers of The Prisoner miniseries made back in 2009. It’s better to stand on one’s own, albeit heavy, metal and robotic feet, than to pull too-much from a cult classic.
The bad, however, is that despite the over-the-top posturing of tabloid TV host Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson), the family story inserted to make Alex’s journey more poignant, and the internal machinations of Omnicorp, headed by a villainous Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), together with the aforementioned exploits in the middle-east, the movie ends-up being less than the sum of its parts. The original was a satire on consumer culture and gun violence. The remake seems to just want to tell a story of a fallen man who overcomes his problems to become a hero.
And there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s less Robocop, and more cookie-cutter hero stuff. Certainly the backstory seems useful to show the development of the underlying technology, justify the actions of Omnicorp and those of protagonist Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) who works as a somewhat irritated police detective, with a wife and child (Abbie Cornish and John Paul Ruttan) in the suburbs.
Indeed, the core of the movie is the emotional journey of the family rather than a glimpse at a dystopian city of the future. The satire of the original seems watered-down, present only in the Tehran scenes, seeing a rice patty outside the grounds of OmniCorp’s Chinese lab (perhaps a dig at Foxconn), tabloid TV host Pat Novak, and the marital bliss which greets Alex when he returns home after a hard nights blazing gunfire. Wife and son are ready waiting for him, as is a beer presented with a smile by his wife, uncapped and presumably chilled to optimum temperature. This seems a nod to 1950’s housewifery, updated for modern sensibilities; the former decade would have had a cocktail and make-up, the modern, a brown nondescript bottle of beer and a down-to-earth housewife.
Despite Robocop 2014 appearing to be a “near-future” scenario, it seems to be business as usual for casting. The big roles go to the men, the Omnicorp CEO, scientist Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), Pat Novak and Robocop himself. African-Americans get a single good-guy with with partner Jack Lewis (Michael K. Williams) and a lot of criminals, including police chief Karen Dean (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), and of course, the aforementioned Pat Novak.
Women on the other hand seem (with the exception of Jean-Baptiste) to be in subordinate roles; Conflicted scientist, Gary Oldman, has a female assistant, Jae Kim (Aimee Garcia), Omnicorp Boss, Michael Keaton, female lawyer Liz Kline (Jennifer Ehle), but lots of male counterpoints, including the over-enthusiastic marketing dude, Jay Baruchel and military tactician Rick Mattox (Jackie Earle Haley with a return to bolshy characterisation last seen by me in Watchmen as Rorschach) and Pat Novak has reporter Kelly (Maura Grierson) who doesn’t even rate a surname on IMDB. Indeed, there’s a Starbuck-like gender-change for Alex’s partner originally played by a woman (Nancy Allen).
I think this movie will get bums on seats, and as a reboot of the original movie, it’s not bad. However, it’s nowhere near as edgy as the original and omits the violence, authoritarianism and consumer-culture taken to extremes in favour of a fairly basic story which gets you from A to B without too much incident. One can only wonder about director José Padilha’s vision for the movie (or indeed, that of originally slated director Darren Aronofsky). One Brazilian article states many of his ideas for the movie were cut.
Robocop 2014 has big shoes to fill and makes a good effort to tell a story of a corporation seeking market-share and profits by exploiting a family and the great nation of the United States of America, with the aid of tabloid television. From that point of view, I’d give it a hearty thumbs-up. If you want, however, to compare it with the original, then you’ll only get an eye-roll and a sigh.