10 February 2014


Whether positive or negative, the short version of any review of this film is that it's not Paul Verhoeven's 1987 film. RoboCop is rightly lauded as an example of Verhoevens's brand of violent and witty media satire, and is therefore unsuitable as a stick with which to beat Jose Padilha's 2014 reboot, also called RoboCop, a film which makes for an action-packed and thoughtful (if not violent and witty) media satire, which definitely isn't aimed at 12 year olds.

In the updated version, Omni Consumer Products is responsible for manufacturing military-grade drones and robots that have kept the peace all around the world. They're the biggest, most successful corporation in America, but they're losing out on massive revenue by a law that bans law enforcement robots from being deployed on US soil. On a PR drive to try and stir public opinion and overturn the law, they put Detective Alex Murphy, recently the victim of an attempted murder, into a robotic prosthesis, little realising how Murphy will react to his resurrection.

Although it's undeniably part of a drive to revitalise established properties, in a movie market that's headed for implosion, the only real credit that you can give to Sony and MGM for this one is that they didn't just put some hired gun to work on bashing out a "re-imagining" that crucially forgets the imagination. Padilha brings new ideas to the table, and his willingness to veer away from what has gone before is a product of his confident and thoughtful approach, rather than a tendency towards vague, "gritty reboot"-ing. Basically, this is the opposite of getting McG to do Terminator Salvation.

While the original had the benefit of being ahead of its time in terms of its representation of the media, this version follows through several current media debates about gun control, drone warfare and the weapons industry, into the simplified but logical extreme of robots being used for military applications. Plus, the director frames his take with snippets from "The Novak Element", a Fox News-style flagship opinion show helmed by a histrionic and perfectly cast Samuel L. Jackson, which refocuses the infamous media satire from Verhoeven's original to align with something recognisable and contemporary.

It's definitely cut from the same cloth as RoboCop, and essentially remains Alex Murphy's story. But amidst a great cast, (more on which later) leading man Joel Kinnaman does feel somewhat marooned. Padilha makes more face time for Kinnaman, like superhero movies that have the very famous-looking heroes losing their masks for certain scenes, but it doesn't help him to make any more of an impression. Perhaps unwisely, Padilha has also bulked up the role played by Murphy's wife and son, though I can't think of a single thing that the film gains for having Abbie Cornish and John Paul Ruttan around so often, while Murphy still feels a little un-rounded.

And that's enough to make you wish that Padilha had done a Neill Blomkamp, and adapted the things he liked into a new, ostensibly original film, because it's Gary Oldman's Dr. Norton who actually makes the biggest impression. Oldman is always wonderful, but in the role of the scientist who pioneers Murphy's life-saving robot suit, it's fascinating to watch him break bad in the same way as a Frankenstein would, ethically compromised by the promise of financial support from OmniCorp. It's almost an understatement to say that he steals the show- you just find yourself wishing it was his movie.

There isn't really a Clarence Boddicker or a Dick Jones to root against, as far as the villains go, but their closest equivalents- Jackie Earle Haley as a cynical military tactician, and Michael Keaton as OmniCorp's slimy, hands-on CEO- are good, if not as memorable. As I said, we're not comparing solely to the original, but if it feels like this isn't as broad or eccentric, then it at least comes with a healthy disdain for the perceived commercial motivations about itself. Keaton unctuously tells his team that "people don't really know what they want until you show it to them", as the film simultaneously reboots Murphy's classic shiny armour into tactical Batman-black, and acknowledges that there's not necessarily anything wrong with how it was.

RoboCop is a far better RoboCop reboot than any of us had hoped for. For all of its flaws, there's nothing that would have been improved by a sudden explosion of gratuitous violence, and it's definitely at the upper end of a 12A as it stands. It errs far closer to allegory than to satire, and if there's any score on which I think it suffers in comparison to the 1987 film, it's that it definitely ought to have had more of a sense of humour. Maybe the studios who set this thing in motion are hoping for a new franchise, but Padilha has done an admirable job of putting his own stamp on a much loved film. If sequels do happen, without him at the helm, you can probably expect them to do as well as those other RoboCop sequels.

RoboCop is now showing in cinemas and IMAX screens nationwide.
If you've seen RoboCop, why not share your comments below?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

No comments: