Intriguingly ambiguous in its rooting interests, the RoboCop remake doesn’t really believe its own poster. The tagline “Crime has a new enemy” suggests little more than point and shoot—the same old cyborg song and dance. While nobody’d be dumb enough to reboot the original 1987 kill-’em-up franchise by holding back on the scenes of slaughter in favor of sly political satire about arm-twisting Fox News jingoism or American business ethics, Brazilian-born director Jose Padilha manages to do all that and still deliver the product.
That first, excitingly sadistic RoboCop, directed by Paul Verhoeven, paved the way for one of the ugliest-spirited sequels ever, and a third, forgettable outing. Now, working from a script by Joshua Zetumer based on the Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner ur-text, we have a movie taking place in the ever-popular near future, 14 years hence. We’re back in Detroit. America’s the lone, squishy-liberal holdout among first-world nations in the crime-fighting revolution deploying deadly peacekeeping robots and robotics. The airwaves are ruled by a Bill O’Reilly-type show, The Novak Element, in which a paranoid visionary (Samuel L. Jackson in fantastic, “distinguished” anchorman hair) shills for the OmniCorp company, the money behind the armed robots.
The company president (Michael Keaton) realizes the American public won’t support robot police officers, unless they can package them as human-ish. Joel Kinnaman of the television series The Killing plays Alex Murphy, the Detroit police detective critically injured by a car bomb and reconfigured, by Gary Oldman’s kindly OmniCorp researcher, into the franchise title at hand.
There’s a lot to enjoy here, though the brutality is very rough for a PG-13 rating. (The screening included an awful lot of clueless parents accompanied by an awful lot of preteens.) RoboCop becomes a pawn in the corporate game, as he was in the original film, but here the machinations and talk of focus groups and marketing strategies is more pronounced and pretty sharp. Most audiences will be content with the gamer-friendly set pieces, in which a fatality count snuggles itself into the upper-right corner of the screen.
Jackie Earle Haley plays the robot trainer/programmer, and he’s one of several ace supporting players lifting RoboCop above the routine. The female roles aren’t much, but they’re not insulting, and they’re handled with steely panache by Abbie Cornish (grieving, confused wife, since her husband’s not technically dead), Marianne Jean-Baptiste (no-nonsense police chief) and the great Jennifer Ehle (icy business associate). The script includes some interesting ideas about the researchers struggling to get RoboCop’s medication doses at the right level, so he retains enough of his human side to be relatable to the public. This is at heart a pretty sad movie. Verhoeven wouldn’t be caught dead making you care about anything in his RoboCop; Padilha is after something different.
He shoots in a familiar shaky-cam style that might be called “early NYPD Blue.” That I can do without. But unlike the recent, empty-headed Total Recall remake, for example, this movie comes at you with an idea or two, as well as every available gun blazing.
RoboCop (PG-13) ★★★☆☆