I can’t tell you how many times I watched the original “RoboCop” during my teen years. The 1987 sci-fi action flick was such a wild ride. It had a really cool mixture of wacky humor, slick satire, a great villain, and some insane (and frequently graphic) action sequences. Then I heard that MGM was bringing RoboCop back. Yes, yet another remake of a popular 1980’s movie. Then I see where this new RoboCop film was getting the dreaded February release date. All things pointed to this being a crappy movie.
But what a surprise it was to find this to be a cool and competent action movie. Let me say it again,”RoboCop” is surprisingly good and I am as shocked as anyone. This is essentially a reboot that takes many of the elements from the original film and adds a modern touch. It shuffles up the narrative a bit and it gets a fresh coat of CGI paint. But the core of the film is the same. It falls short of the first film in several areas, but it makes its own satisfying statement in others. Again, I was really surprised.
This “RoboCop” quickly lays out its politically charged landscape. The United States government has handed over its military reins to a multinational corporation known as OmniCorp. These guys have mastered advanced robot technology which allows for mechanical soldiers to replace humans. Their sales pitch points to how many lives have been saved in American military interests around the world. OmniCorp’s next big moneymaking venture is selling their products to local law enforcement. But a group of strong-willed senators and a very concerned public opinion stands in the way. This hodgepodge of political wrangling and big corporate greed is clearly intended as some sort of social satire. Well the message didn’t resonate with me, but it did set up an interesting landscape for the main story.
Speaking of the main story, this time around Swedish born actor Joel Kinnaman plays Detroit police detective Alex Murphy. He and his partner have been working undercover to bring down a local crime boss. But as he gets closer to blowing the top off the case, the bad guys get nervous and try to take Murphy out. A car bomb goes off leaving Murphy with severe burns, amputations, and no hope for survival. OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) approaches Murphy’s wife Clara (played by the lovely Abbie Cornish) and offers to save her husband’s life by placing him in a permanent robotic suit. Of course Sellars real intent is to put a face on his robot program in hopes of swaying public opinion.
One thing I was looking forward to was the return of Michael Keaton to a larger big screen role. I’ve always loved him dating back to his early madcap comedy style. While he is written to be your standard corporate baddie, Keaton brings a certain slimy panache to the role. It was great to see him back. There was also the casting of Gary Oldman as a scientist who struggles with the moral complexity of the RoboCop project. It’s a great role for Oldman and as you would expect he is fabulous. Then there is Samuel L. Jackson who plays a loud and opinionated cable news talk show host. We only see him via his broadcast and he is funny in spurts. But by his fourth appearance I was tired of him.
The funny thing about this film is that it flirts with a number of satirical themes and the story teases going in several different directions. But it pulls back on a number of occasions choosing to play it safe. There are several interesting turns that really hooked me and I wanted them to go further than they actually do. Still, there was enough in and around the central story to keep me involved. Some of the plot directions are really effective and very well conceived.
But many people will go to “RoboCop” looking for some good, old-fashioned action. They will definitely get it here. Director José Padilha definitely knows how to shoot action. There are some butt-kicking standout sequences, none better than a wicked shootout in a pitch black gang hideout. It’s stylish, kinetic, and a ton of fun. The technology is cool, the RoboCop suit looks great, and there are several other visual flares that I loved. For example one scene shows what is left of Murphy once he is stripped of his armor. It’s a wild and disturbing special effect that also fuels one of the movie’s bigger emotional moments.
So many of these modern remakes have turned out terrible (I’m looking at you “Red Dawn” and “Total Recall”). The good news is “RoboCop” certainly isn’t terrible. It isn’t as provocative is it wants to be. It isn’t as clever as it tries to be. It isn’t as witty as it needs to be. But it is more fun than I ever expected it to be. There is some great action, some really good performances, and enough depth to the story to make it a worthwhile science fiction romp. Don’t expect a deep cerebral experience. After all this is RoboCop. But I can honestly say, that it had a lot more to offer than I was ever expecting.