It’s usually hard for a remake to stand in the shadow of a predecessor. Take "RoboCop", José Padilha’s update on Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 cult classic. When that film came out, it snuck in under the radar with great reviews for its futuristic commentary on a dystopian world in which a half-man/half-robot tames a lawless Detroit. It was a hit and spawned sequels, and even a number of television series. All this from a film that was bankrolled for a modest $13 million.
Padilha’s new version cost ten times as much, yet he shrewdly captures the lean, B-movie quality of the first, cannily turning his film into a commentary on such contemporary issues as media manipulation, political corruption and personal rights.
It begins smartly with a sequence that establishes the political terrain: jingoistic television commentator Pat Novak (an over-the-top Samuel L. Jackson) presenting a demonstration of the use of RoboCops to keep the peace in occupied Tehran.
In the middle of the sequence, comes a terrorist attack, which is thwarted by the sleek human-styled robots and bigger, clunkier insect-like machines. While Novak and his blonde reporter (shades of Fox News) attempt to make the case for the use of these robots as humane, the faces of the Tehran citizens tell a different story.
Novak has an agenda: the United States is the only major power left where the use of robots for security purposes is prohibited by an act of Congress; but Novak (like a Tea Party Republican out to get the Affordable Care Act) is determined to get it repealed. Why is America robophobic? He asks.
The robots are the creation of OmniCorp, headed by CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), whose idea to get around the law is to create a robot that’s half man/half machine. When Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), a Detroit police officer, is left seriously maimed in a firebombing of his car, Sellars finds his RoboCop. With the cooperation of Murphy’s wife Clara (Abbie Cornish), Sellars wakes up with just a head and part of his torso; the rest of his new body is comprised of a sleek suit of some modern alloy.
He’s been transformed by OmniCorp’s chief research scientist Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman); but there are kinks Norton hasn’t worked out. Whenever Murphy shows emotion, he overloads and cannot operate with the steely efficiency of a robot. Norton comes up with a solution, but at a cost to Murphy’s well-being.
What makes this version so compelling is the combination of the social commentary (who hasn’t turned on MSNBC and not heard a debate about the use of drones?) and the human dimension that Padilha brings to the characters. (The script is by relative newcomer Joshua Zetumer.)
Kinnaman (from AMC’s "The Killing") is especially good at conveying both the pain and the determination of his transformed cop. At first there’s a sense of disappointment when his physicality is contained in the suit, but Kinnamen has such an expressive face that he morphs into his new persona with touching humanity. He ably convey his sadness with just the gaze of his liquid brown eyes.
Padilha wisely utilizes his cast, which includes Keaton in a wonderfully malevolent turn as the CEO who will stop at nothing to achieve his dream of security domination worldwide. Oldman also brings ambivalence to his doctor, torn by his ethical concerns and an ambition every bit as large as Keaton’s. There is also sharp work from Jackie Earle Haley as a sociopathic trainer, Jennifer Ehle as Keaton’s equally cold-hearted assistant, Jay Baruchel as a smarmy marketing executive, Cornish as Murphy’s beleaguered wife and Michael K. Williams as Murphy’s partner on the force.
If there’s a misstep, it comes with the film’s final moments, which tie things up with a franchise in mind. Not that this is such a bad idea, but considering the film’s somber tone and its trenchant cynicism, the sequence feels oddly out-of-place. But the Brazilian Padilha has a terrific eye for action sequences and a great rapport with actors; the result is a film that could likely stand on its own as an sci-fi classic if it wasn’t burdened with comparisons with its much exalted original. Perhaps in time it will.