2014, 118mins, 12
Director: Jose Padilha
Writer (s): Joshua Zetumer, Edward Neumeier & Michael Miner (1987 screenplay)
Cast includes: Joel Kinnaman, Abbie Cornish, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Jackie Earle Haley, Jennifer Ehle, Jay Baruchel, Samuel L. Jackson
UK Release Date: 7th February 2014
It hasn't even been two years since Hollywood attempted to remake Paul Verhoeven’s “Total Recall”, morphing a cherished science-fiction property into an onerous, over-produced bore. The film stirred little interest at the box-office (it was one of 2012’s more catastrophic flops), leaving us to ponder why we’re now faced with a reincarnation of “RoboCop”. The original 1987 property was a smart, frantic and mature genre piece, loaded with gore and corporate commentary, a film beloved due to its seamless blend of intelligence and high-stakes action. Updating Verhoeven has proven a tough ask, and for many, “RoboCop” is his best work. It’s nice to remark that on the back of all this scepticism (I haven’t even referenced the movie’s underwhelming promotional campaign) “RoboCop” circa 2014 isn’t awful; in fact it’s pretty good. It’s not as innovative, demented or toothy as Verhoeven’s masterpiece, but director Jose Padilha has done a solid job of cranking out an event movie that transcends expectation. This shiny update isn’t revelatory, but effort has been made, and beneath the digitals some ideas still froth.
In an attempt to avenge his partner following a shakedown gone south, Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) becomes the victim of gangsters he’s investigating, critically wounded following a tactically arranged explosion. With little hope of surviving, Murphy comes to the attention of OmniCorp, a company with a vested interest in disabled cops. OmniCorp specialise in the creation of combat machines, used effectively to police other countries, but unable to defend American soil due to preventative legislation. The people want an equivalent that can think and feel like a human, leaving CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) to try and place a person inside a computer’s consciousness. After procuring the support of Murphy’s grieving wife (Abbie Cornish), Sellars recruits Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) to begin blending man and machine, hopefully leading to a new age of law enforcement.
“RoboCop” is a different film in 2014 than it was in 1987; that much is definite. Padilha excitedly addresses a more globally “connected” world at the start, depicting marines leading waves of robots through foreign cities, creating eerie unease as the machines undress citizens digitally in the pursuit of weapons. These images are some of the film’s sharpest, there’s a disgusting familiarity in watching foreigners treated like certifiable terror threats, whilst the American media smiles and waves, depicting the invasion as a nation’s salvation. It’s an encouraging statement of intent, and one that “RoboCop” returns to sporadically, using Samuel L. Jackson’s fiery pro-robot TV personality to dissect corporate politics and bias media viewpoints (hello, Fox News), unearthing nuggets of engaging satire amidst waves of context and exposition. Jackson is entertaining, but what’s truly uplifting is that Padilha is trying to preserve the perceptive identity of this franchise. “RoboCop” ’14 isn’t as sharp or radical (it’s nearly 30-years later, how could it be?), but it honours the cerebral tone of Verhoeven’s vision admirably.
The retelling of Murphy’s story is more perfunctory, even though Padilha brings the family dynamic front and centre. It’s funny that despite an enhanced focus, and decent work from Cornish, Murphy’s heartbreak and detachment were more effectively communicated in a single scene from the first picture, than the entirety of this one. We get several direct chances to observe the character fighting his inner, mechanised demons in a bid to bond with his wife and child, and whilst they’re handled competently and swiftly, they lack the melancholic pathos of the moment in Verhoeven’s film where the hero enters his old abode, forced to combat the past through memory. Maybe it’s Kinnaman’s performance that lets the side down, the TV actor doesn’t have Peter Weller’s screen presence, and when he has to embody anything other than stoic calm, he struggles. Much of his work feels forced, and there’s a coldness from the offset which makes it hard to care. That’s not a criticism a sensible viewer would level at the ’87 incarnation.
On the other hand the supporting cast are a joy, particularly the OmniCorp staff. Keaton essays the CEO like a hipper Bill Gates, combining enthusiasm with ruthless manipulation wonderfully. Until the finale, it’s very hard to decide whether you should or shouldn’t like him, always the mark of a strong, natural antagonistic turn. Elsewhere Jackie Earle Haley, Jennifer Ehle and Jay Baruchel are used in accordance with their distinctive strengths, adding to the backroom dynamic’s three-dimensionality. The standout has to be Oldman though, who displays genuine unease as Norton. The script applies only surface level insight into the risks of unethical practise, But Oldman’s turn bolsters this element considerably; convincing and likable as a man battling between professional gratification and moral obligation. The energy of every other participant jumps a notch when Oldman enters the fracas, Kinnaman only really feels emotionally open in his company.
The world-building is effective (although Detroit never seems as bountiful as the sparse international sequences), the production design sleek and even thoughtful. The new RoboCop attire is pretty neat to behold (fanboys will no doubt disagree), bringing the hero to a generation more enamoured with style than any before them. Technically the action sequences are well constructed and edited, although not one stands out beyond the closing credits. The attitude and viscera that characterised Verhoeven’s version is absent; what we now have is something a little more polished, but also lacking in imagination. The ending is particularly rote, an unsatisfactory CGI scuffle followed by a standoff on a helipad. It fits the demands of the narrative fine, and might even have passed muster without the shadow of its predecessor looming, but in comparison to the edgy violence of ’87, the fire-fights and chases which define this extension seem formulaic.
Don’t be surprised to see legions of movie buffs and Verhoeven devotees’ line up to slam Padilha’s work; for them this retread was persona non grata from the moment it was commissioned. This picture is the inferior version of the tale, but that’s not to say it’s worthless. “RoboCop” actively attempts to convey some fresh perspective and add new satirical undertones, which are at points quite striking. There’s also the matter of a strong supporting cast to consider, who alongside Padilha’s glossy production design imbue the film with something approaching a soul. I wouldn't begin to argue that “RoboCop” is a perfect slice of cinema, but in a world where the “Total Recall” rehash still lingers on the population’s memory, it’s a relative success.
A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2014