RoboCop Walks Its Own Path

A new take on the satirical '87 classic strives for more humanity

The only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun, as any upstanding NRA member will tell you, is a good guy with a gun. Or a robot with a gun, for which concepts of "good" and "bad" are unknown and irrelevant in light of face-recognition technology, advanced software 

programming and access to millions of criminal records. Such robots, under U.S. military supervision, patrol the streets of Tehran in Robocop's opening sequence. A talking head played by Samuel L. Jackson, safe in the studio of his own show (the pompously titled The Novak Element) cheers on the the work of the robots in holding down human casualties and blasting away would-be suicide bombers. And he asks — if we can do it over there, why can't we clean up our own streets?

Where the 1987 film RoboCop tweaked the corporate mindset and greed as it provided pulpy thrills, director Jose Padilha's version strikes a more subdued tone and asks viewers to ponder what it means to have robots (including drones, just to make the relevance to our own times clear) fulfilling law enforcement activities. Novak's question "why not here?" is rhetorical. For him and his ilk, anything that makes us safer is a good thing. A pinched-looking, bow tie-wearing senator is the face of anti-robot sympathies, and it's his name on an act of congress that prevents robots from serving as law enforcement.

The head of OmniCorp, the company supplying the military with its weaponized robots, decides the way to sway public opinion is to put a man inside the machine. This opens up such a thicket of practical (to say nothing of ethical) issues, it's a wonder no one at the company could see them coming. OmniCorp's decision to go ahead with its daft plan gives RoboCop a chance to present us with chewy questions that explore the nature and limits of free will, what it means to be human, and the role of compassion in administering justice.

It's hardly a robocopy of the original, though certain core elements are retained, with Detroit cop Alex Murphy getting blown up and left on death’s doorstep before being turned into the title character. (In the original, Peter Weller is riddled with bullets by cartoonish goons, making his story one that's fueled more by the desire for revenge.)

The corporate greed represented by Michael Keaton (OmniCorp's chief), Jennifer Ehle and Jay Baruchel can’t compare to the oiliness of Dan O'Herlihy, Miguel Ferrer and Ronny Cox from the first film. A hero is only as potent as his villain — and no one here comes close to Kurtwood Smith's reprehensible Clarence Boddicker.

The serious tone of this version makes it considerably less fun than its predecessor, which is fine, but the reach for depth doesn't equate to a better film. The action has been toned down to make more room for Murphy’s struggle to retain his humanity after most of his body — except his head, one hand and respiratory system — has been replaced by a metal exoskeleton. Joel Kinnaman, who plays Murphy as a dour, no-nonsense guy, isn't particularly interesting in his entirely organic form — he emotes more once he wears the armor.

Verhoeven’s broad satiric elements have been replaced by a look at an efficient but scary time where the price paid for safety is intrusion into our private lives. Scarier than RoboCop's weaponry is his omniscience: He's able to plug into just about any street camera in the city, making it easy for him to track down his targets.

Padilha's plotting isn't gripping, and the movie just meanders in the last few scenes, leading to humdrum showdowns. The tagline of the original was “Part Man. Part Machine. All Cop.” In those lines, one could read “police officer as bad-ass hero,” which worked in light of the scum he was up against. Padilha’s update isn’t so kind to the force, where corruption has infected the squad. One of the best things one can say about this RoboCop is that it's an OK film in its own right and doesn't take the shine off the armor filmgoers have come to appreciate.

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