Zoom zoom zoom! The sleek new version of RoboCop sprints at high speed through a multitude of plot points and sociological concerns, leaving little room for emotional impact and absolutely no compelling artistic reason for its existence.
The surface is highly-finished and reflective. Writer Joshua Zetumer copies the story and characters of the 1987 RoboCop so closely that original writers Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner also receive credit for the screenplay. Certainly there are differences, most significantly with the individual credited for the “creation” of RoboCop, Dr. Dennett Norton, played with fierce adherence to subtle emotional modulation by the reliable Gary Oldman.
Dr. Norton is portrayed as a man of science who earnestly wants to avoid any of his work being weaponized for military purposes. He’s fooling himself, of course — he is employed by OmniCorp., which is (apparently) entirely devoted to the manufacture of drones and other mechanized weapons for use by the U.S. military — and it’s only a matter of time before OmniCorp. head Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) and his nasty minions (ice-cold Jennifer Ehle, sleazy Jay Baruchel, and dead-eye Jackie Earle Haley) coerce Dr. Norton into making RoboCop into the mechanical man of their financial dreams.
As Dr. Norton wrestles his conscience into submission, Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) struggles with the loss of his manhood, both literally and figuratively. The new film demonstrates a heightened awareness and increased sensitivity toward Murphy, who is treated (eventually) with the kindness and patience accorded a soldier disabled in military service. While no direct connection is made on that front, the film’s opening sequence takes place in Tehran, Iran, and explores the political impact of drone warfare on public consciousness, and it’s a short step from there to viewing Murphy as an unwilling pawn of the U.S. government.
Except the film doesn’t really “go” there; it conjures up a controversial law banning the use of completely mechanized weapons, and focuses like a laser-beam on the premise that U.S. citizens of the near future are most desirous of having humans manning robotic death machines, which neatly avoids the far more controversial issue of gun control. Within this film, it’s more like “gun control control.”
Always keeping meaningful issues at arm’s length means that the film pens itself into a prison of its own devising. Padilha’s action sequences unfold with brutal efficiency, though none of the actual bloodshed is shown; dozens of people are killed throughout the movie, but almost always without an ounce of blood flow, all the better to secure a PG-13 rating, rather than a more honest R rating.
Honoring a film because it is not as bad as I anticipated really doesn’t make any sense. To be fair, the cast invests the film with as much heft as possible, which threatens to topple the slender the narrative into pomposity. Oldman is terrific and Kinnaman makes the role his own; notable additional contributions are made by Abbie Cornish (as Murphy’s wife), Michael K. Williams (as Murphy’s partner), Marianne Jean-Bapiste (as Murphy’s commander), Samuel L. Jackson (as media commenter Pat Novak), and Aimee Garcia (as Dr. Norton’s lieutenant).
The abundance of talent on hand ensures that the film is competently made and acted. But the original film still exists and is still as fresh, timely, and poignant as ever. Why watch a copy when the original is so widely available?
RoboCop opens wide in theaters throughout Dallas and Ft. Worth on Wednesday, February 12.