If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then how are you supposed to feel when Hollywood keeps remaking your old movies? That’s a perfect question for director Paul Verhoeven, who has seen two of his sci-fi cult classics rebooted in as many years.
Lucky for us, this year’s “RoboCop” is a much stronger film than 2012’s forgettable “Total Recall” (pun intended), which stripped Verhoeven’s original of its charismatic lead and patched it up with a few updated special effects. The new “RoboCop” is still far from a perfect film and will inevitably leave some fans of the 1987 original unsatisfied, but it should do better at the box office.
The reason for fans' apprehension has been the new film's PG-13 rating. The first "RoboCop" was a hard R, leaning on its graphic violence in a way that made you think blood squibs were selling on special. The over-the-top blood and guts and the screwball one-liners (“I’ll buy that for a dollar!”) that are so indicative of Verhoeven’s style were largely responsible for “RoboCop’s” late-'80s popularity, and many fans have been fearing a bloodless commercial sellout.
So is the new “RoboCop” just a watered-down effort to cash in on ‘80s nostalgia? Not quite. Diehards may still reject director Jose Padilha’s new offering, but the film has its strong points, including a great cast, some gripping action and a relevant and compelling story.
The plot is essentially the same as the old film: when a police officer named Alex Murphy (played by Joel Kinnaman) is maimed by an underworld attack, he becomes a cyborg guinea pig for a robotics corporation named OmniCorp, which is trying to persuade the American government to allow its robotic sentries to patrol the streets.
While OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) lauds the human element of his new creation, behind the scenes he is pulling the strings of his own resident Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), who is manipulating what is left of Alex’s humanity to maximize his robo-efficiency.
“RoboCop's” impressive cast also includes Abbie Cornish as Murphy’s wife, Clara, and Samuel L. Jackson and Michael K. Williams. Jackson plays Pat Novak, a cartoon TV news host who narrates the film in his signature over-the-top incredulous style, almost as a nod to the campiness of the original film.
Oldman is great as always, and Keaton grows into his role, even if he’s nowhere near as seedy as Ronny Cox, the original baddie from ’87. The one guy who should get a free pass is Kinnaman, since he’s playing a cyborg, but next to Peter Weller, he comes up a little short.
Rather than completely revamp the original, the new "RoboCop" echoes its predecessor in other ways: Both films are set in Detroit. Both pit the money-grubbing military ambitions of a robotics corporation against the community it is supposed to be serving. And both center their narratives on the relationship between man and machine at an intimate level.
Because of this, the new “RoboCop” gets the opportunity to mine some compelling material: the importance of free will, the resilience of the human soul and the ethical line between government and the corporation. At its best moments, it peers at these issues convincingly, but never quite long enough, or in-depth enough, before it veers back to the ear-shattering mayhem of the typical action film.
“RoboCop” is trying to walk a thin line, and if it spent more time exploring its thematic potential instead of defaulting to a live-action video game, we might have had something very special.
As mentioned previously, “RoboCop” is rated PG-13 for considerable violence and mayhem, though nowhere near the level of the R-rated 1987 original. There is also some profanity (including references to deity), sexual content and some disturbing CGI showing Murphy’s surviving organic pieces.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. You can see more of his work at woundedmosquito.com.