When I saw the original 1987 Robocop in a movie theater, a funny thing happened. During the final scene of the film, the title character commits a heroic act and saves a wealthy old man. The man says, “Nice shooting son, what’s your name?” Robocop turns to the man, and us, and replies, “Murphy.”
For a character whose identity was stripped from him, it’s a triumphant, rousing declaration. Someone in the audience was so caught up in the moment, he yelled, “You’re damn right it is!” Everyone else in the auditorium started to cheer. As the end credits began to roll, you could feel the theater buzzing from the experience. Paul Verhoeven’s classic sci-fi action/drama may be absurdly violent, viciously satirical and thrilling in its spectacle but the human story at its center is still what makes it a masterpiece of its genre.
At no point during Jose Padilha’s remake did I feel any kind of emotional connection to the anyone in it. Halfway in, there’s a sequence set to “If I Only Had a Heart” from The Wizard of Oz which made me wonder if everyone involved realized what was missing here.
The story is mostly the same: Officer Murphy (played here by Joel Kinnaman) is murdered, re-born as a cyborg and fights crime in futuristic Detroit. The details of his high-tech resurrection reveal corruption at the highest levels, though Murphy’s greatest battle is to maintain the part of himself that is still human.
To compare the remake to the original only points to where the screenplay made wrong turns and found missed opportunities. In the original, Murphy was executed in horrifying fashion by a memorably colorful gang of criminals we grow to despise. Here, Murphy’s demise is brought on by an impersonal car bombing. Also, the bad guys he pursues are uninteresting and scenes of his police work before donning the suit feel like outtakes from tired TV police dramas.
Much emphasis has been put on Murphy’s wife (played by Abbie Cornish) trying to re-connect with her slain husband. Cornish has the same sleek hairstyle in every scene (it appears she is always ready to attend a gala) and doesn’t find the heart of her character. Most critically, neither does Kinnaman. The man in the suit simply isn’t very interesting. Imagine Iron Man without Tony Stark and it might look like this movie.
Sections of the Robocop remake are so promising that I thought the film would get better. The supporting cast is well chosen, with Michael Keaton (in a serious turn) and Jackie Earl Haley providing outstanding villainy and Gary Oldman gives his half-baked scientist role some passion. As a TV personality on a FOX News-like show, Samuel L. Jackson brings welcome showmanship, though the most interesting thing about the character is the man playing him.
Unlike the propulsive pace of the first film, the remake stops and starts without finding a rhythm. Padhila may not build a better machine but his action sequences are impressive. When Robocop battles not one but three ED-209s, I was giddy with excitement. Likewise, a motorcycle attack on bad guys, set mostly in pitch black, is a stunning sequence. If only the quieter scenes had as much juice.
The sight of Robocop without his suit is a shocker, though the special effect becomes overused. Shaky hand-held cameras during the action makes sense but serves no purpose during a scene with two people talking in a living room.
While preferable to the totally awful Total Recall remake from two years ago, this Robocop makes the same mistake of shoe-horning moments and sound bites for fans, demonstrating how much better they were done the first time.
If someone wants to remake another Verhoeven film, will they please stay away from his sci-fi classics and just remake Showgirls?
Score: ** (1-5 Star Scale)