There might have been initial worries that this reincarnation of Robocop – having been so well brought to screen by Paul Verhoeven’s skilled direction in 1987 – might lack the political and social consciousness which makes the original something more than just hefty one liners and gory ultra violence.
The year is 2028, good cop and loving husband Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is severely wounded whilst investigating a major drug ring, then kept alive and transformed into the titular crime fighting cyborg – clad in what I can only assume are redundant hand-me-downs from the Dark Knight trilogy – by science genius Dr Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman). Behind Robocop’s inception is monolithic OmniCorp and its madcap capital obsessed CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton).
From the off, things look good. A charismatic Samuel L. Jackson comically opens the film in Ron Burgundy fashion as he prepares for his propaganda filled news broadcast. The film then quickly and plainly establishes its sociopolitical consciousness with its discussion on the use of drone warfare. It soon acknowledges philosophical notions of consciousness and what it is to be human, explained this time by the sporadically moral Dr. Dennett Norton, brought to life by a rather muted and underutilised Gary Oldman. Also persistent throughout the film is a constant alluding to the subjectivity of the media.
It can’t be said that the film doesn’t have substance, or more accurately, doesn’t attempt to have substance. But the various issues brought up and referred to constantly throughout the film aren’t ever thoroughly explored. The familiar science fiction convention reminding us of the importance of retaining human characteristics in the face of a technological threat pervade throughout, but the film never really grasps its subject matter in order to break new ground or offer new insight into the issues it teases us with.
Where Verhoeven’s Robocop entertains with ultra violent dark humour and extravagant one liners, in its insistence on conspicuously alluding to its ‘substance’, José Padilha’s remake forgets to be fun. Occasional fight sequences with robot on robot action are well directed but ultimately aren’t engaging. While Joshua Zetumer’s script mildly attempts to embody some of the extravagance of the original, the film lacks such ostentatious performances as Robert DoQui’s angry police sergeant or Kurtwood Smith’s ridiculous super baddy Clarence J. Boddicker, so any infrequent big one liners fall flat or miss their mark.
This isn’t to say that Robocop needs to mirror the original (it doesn’t do this), and it does to some extent avoid assimilation into the mire of Hollywood action films, but this leaves Robocop not really knowing what it’s trying to be. The script isn’t quite intelligent enough to keep us engaged through its scientific jabber and capitalist scheming, it isn’t funny, the glossy cinematography feels awkwardly close throughout, action sequences are competent but not exciting, and the potentially entertaining cast always feel somewhat restrained.
The restraint of the somewhat ill-fitting performance from Joel Kinnaman when he becomes Robocop is perhaps a happy one. Meanwhile Abbie Cornish does all she can to bring to life Murphy’s unconvincingly scripted wife Clara, but feels like a plot device we’re sporadically reminded of to conveniently nudge the plot forwards. Michael Keaton and Gary Oldman, both capable of invigorating a film with energetic performances, never really feel like they are allowed to flex their acting muscles, and other supporting roles are also disappointing. Jackie Earle Haley is good but doesn’t shine as he has in previous roles, and throwaway performances by Michael K. Williams, Jay Baruchel and Jennifer Ehle are unmemorable.
The pace plods along, frequently getting bogged down in making Murphy’s transition into Robocop believable, and action scenes don’t seem to inject pace into the story at the right moments. Ultimately, Robocop is a bit slow, a bit boring, and like its protagonist, a bit mechanical.
Robocop (2014), directed by José Padilha, is released in UK cinemas by Sony Pictures Entertainment, Certificate 12a.