Genre: Action, Crime, Sci-fi
Directed by: José Padilha
Starring: Joel Kinnaman, Douglas Urbanski, Abbie Cornish, Gary Oldman
With a poor Total Recall remake two years ago followed by RoboCop, it looks like Hollywood is declaring open season on the Paul Verhoeven back catalogue. Now that Starship Troopers is also lined up for a return, it’s only a matter of time before someone green-lights a Showgirls reboot. At least the updated RoboCop is no disgrace. It even starts out strongly before wasting that early promise, settling instead into an entertaining if empty action romp.
Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson), host of the rampantly biased show The Novak Element, introduces us to the world of 2028. The US has pacified the globe with intimidating robot law enforcers, emotionless and willing to gun down anything perceived as a threat. You can almost feel Joshua Zetumer’s script nudging you in the ribs while whispering the word drones. For all their effectiveness though, the American public certainly does not want these things on their doorstep, much to the chagrin of OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton). Sensing great riches, he develops a scheme to win the public over.
With the help of esteemed scientist Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), he hatches a plan to give a human face to his metal monsters. This comes in the shape of Detroit cop Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), blown up while pursuing a local gangster. That pesky human soul just can’t be tamed though, and soon he’s off trying to reconnect with his wife Clara (Abbie Cornish) and son David (John Paul Ruttan), while investigating the wrong people. Naturally, explosions and chaos ensue.
The 1987 original combined thrilling action with biting satire, an on the nose look at Ronald Reagan’s social paradise and the decline of northern industrial cities like Detroit. Credit then to the remake for at least starting out this way. The opening is an unsubtle yet effective swipe at America’s occasionally heavy handed foreign policy. Novak’s hyperbolic assertions that the locals in Tehran are happy to cooperate are deliciously juxtaposed with the faces of sullen and resentful Iranians being security scanned by these deadly robots.
Encouraging as the start is, the political overtones are soon replaced by a much more straightforward story. Murphy’s family life is thrust into centre stage to serve as the films core but the relationships with Clara and their son are not strong enough to carry the film. Cornish gets to do little other than look anxious and the connection Murphy has with David seems to be based entirely on watching Detroit Red Wings games.
Luckily, director José Padilha has well-honed action skills from his Elite Squad films. When mayhem is unleashed, it’s done so with a steely determination that manages to create both tension and exhilaration in equal measure. The finale, conventional in so many ways, still manages to impress, while Murphy’s training sessions generate almost childlike glee as the glistening hero twists, turns and cavorts his way towards the end goal, pumping music blaring.
This is something of a double-edged sword however. While the action is great fun, it falls into the trap of aping the very thing it’s supposed to be critiquing. With the use of drones currently being attacked for the perceived emotional disconnect and video game style nature of their operation, the action scenes here could be uploaded to the internet and it would be hard to spot the difference between Padilha’s film and the legion of first person shooters out there.
At least the special effects are of a high quality. If RoboCop is going to abandon its morals, it might as well look good while doing it. Aside from a camera shakier than it has any right to be, and a bizarre sound effect that gives the impression of a mobile phone on vibrate, the violence is captured effectively and the world of the future recreated in an impressively shiny, if perhaps overly familiar manner.
With time and attention lavished on the technical side, performances take a back seat. Kinnaman only has to be a robot so he’s ok, but Keaton never really gets to let loose with his tame villain. This oozes into his flunkies, Jennifer Ehle, Jay Baruchel and Jackie Earle Haley mostly just making up the numbers. Only Gary Oldman gets to do any real acting, convincingly displaying a scientist overtaken by, and then wrestling with, a moral conundrum.
RoboCop is perfectly serviceable action fare. It looks good and entertains even if it starts to veer slightly too close to a re-tread of parts of the Elite Squad series with added robots. The most disappointing thing is not that it doesn’t live up to its illustrious predecessor. It’s that it surrenders a good beginning for a fun but ultimately empty blockbuster. In the end, the film itself is a convincing reason to ban Sellars’ robots. RoboCop may work efficiently but there’s something faintly worrying about this stylish yet empty vessel.