One of the benefits of not having viewed Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 tale of crime-ridden Detroit until recently is a lack of connection on any meaningful level to the source material of the RoboCop reboot. For those who list the original version among their favourite films, the José Padilha directed remake may fail to meet expectations; it lacks the satirical absurdity of the original. However, the thematic core of the story remains the same, allowing the film to flourish as an appropriately updated spin on the classic.
In the year 2028, OmniCorp, headed by shifty American profiteer Raymond Sellers (Michael Keaton), has implemented the use of drones (droid-style robots) to police the streets of foreign territories, supposedly saving soldier lives. His home turf, however, is an untapped market, due to legislation that prevents the use of robots in law enforcement. Sellers engages scientist Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) to construct a robot with feelings–a half man, half robot cop who will sway voters and lawmakers. Detective Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is a young Detroit cop in a nest of corruption. When an explosion leaves him a burned double amputee, his wife Clara (Abbie Cornish) relinquishes him to OmniCorp, believing it is the only chance of saving his life.
Murphy’s transformation into RoboCop shifts from the original where the audience is given a series of point of view shots showing how the family man underwent memory wipes and amputation, treated as an object by everyone involved in the project. Instead, Murphy is left with his memories, for a time, until the human part of him is seen as a liability. Rather than the gradual realization of his humanity Peter Weller’s Murphy experienced in the original, Kinnaman’s Murphy must struggle with acceptance of how little of his old self remains, despite what his mind tells him. Whereas the original kept Murphy buried under the shield for most of the movie, now the audience is shown the transition between man and machine as the shield retracts to show Kinnaman’s steely torture. It’s an effective way to flesh out the film while still keeping with the essence of the original.
The action sequences are perhaps the least successful part of the film–they are a bit too glossy. But there is a kinetic energy that pervades. RoboCop now is perhaps less laden with satire, although there are a few references to the original that should please fans. Samuel L. Jackson as Pat Novak, the host of a political show that insults the bias media while pushing Seller’s agenda, chomps through the material with wide-eyed delight. Seeing his trademarked just contained rage in a suit and wig, vamping on Bill O’Reilly, is amusing and an appropriate touchstone throughout the film.
RoboCop’s remake is successful in its ambitions and enough varied in its approach to be warranted. It’s a far better film than it could be. Other remakes should take note.