In 1987, director Paul Verhoeven made a subversive film detailing the destructive nature of human corruption, greed, capitalism and privatisation masquerading as a man in a suit of armor. The film of course, was RoboCop, about detective Alex Murphy who is brutally wounded in the line of duty only to be brought back to life as a half human/half robot dichotomy of machine-like efficiency and human emotion. The film was, on all accounts, a resounding and violent success; the accompanying gravitas added by the burgeoning excess of the 1980s.
Fast forward more than two decades and Brazilian filmmaker Jose Padilha’s first venture into English-language film is Hollywood’s revisit to Verhoeven’s classic. Looking at RoboCop (2014) from a distance, its easy to point out what fans of the original may have issues with. Among them is the film’s PG-13 rating, toning down the original’s purposeful violence and bloodshed. Yet as Padilha makes his way through modern Detroit’s Omnicorp-laden landscape, we’re given a brand new palette in which to immerse ourselves in- one that succeeds for the most part.
The Killing’s Joel Kinnaman is the new Alex Murphy- boasting the same kind of disheveled, gravely tone Peter Weller had in the original- he does a great job of being both human and robotic. And while the dystopian picture given in Verhoeven’s original isn’t quite as present, we’re given the backdrop of continued Middle East tension as to why America needs robots to defend the streets instead of humans. At the head of Omnicorp is Michael Keaton’s Raymond Sellers, an astute businessmen whose motives seem to be driven more by money and success than crazed megalomania. His towering corporate stance is given an opposing shadow by Gary Oldman’s Dr. Dennett Norton (a scientist whose primary role was to create robotic prosthetics to those who have lost their limbs). Through this we see that not even Keaton’s character is decisively evil, just focused on turning over political law to suit his corporate needs.
The crux of the film’s problems may stem from Samuel L. Jackson’s annoying media figure Pat Novak. He serves as the host of the political talk show The Novak Element, which serves as the political commentary of the film. The cross section of this plot progression is a little clunky and somewhat distracting, and while attempts to help bring home the corruptive and unproductive nature of politics, seems to act as a very unsubtle way to hammer home the idea that the film is making political statements. It doesn’t quite flow as well as the same tactic did in Verhoeven’s other cult subversive statement Starship Troopers.
From here we see Kinnaman battle the aforementioned elements once he becomes half man, half robot. The robot suit is actually quite refined and very well done. While the original RoboCop was literally a giant walking tin can, Padilha has managed to craft a sleek, agile and contemporary version of the suit that plays well into the character’s ability to undertake advanced police work. The best parts of the film are when Alex Murphy battles himself to overcome the robotic sedation of his human side. Credit to Padilha for giving RoboCop agility not only in combat, but in connection as well.
The biggest gripe of the film is perhaps Padilha’s reluctance to let the film become bigger than it is. Perhaps in fear of becoming a by-the-numbers action vehicle, the final third of the film is lacking one last big set piece. It would have been a great way to truly pay homage to the original but replicating its destructive violence- not for it to become just another action film- but to resonate a point the way the 1987 film did.
Fans of the original will undoubtedly complain about RoboCop (2014) shortcomings in comparison to Verhoeven’s. In truth, these two movies come at two very different times in our society and what was cultural shocking and subversive in 1987 needs to be finessed to an impatient and smart audience in different ways. The film is good, and is enjoyable as it is- a sleek, rather subdued but emotionally deft action film- just don’t take it for anything more.
RoboCop is now playing in Australian cinemas and will open in US cinemas February 12th.
Directed by: Jose Padilha
Written by: Joshua Zetumer
Cast: Joel Kinnaman, Abbie Cornish, Michael Keaton, Samuel L. Jackson, Gary Oldman
Released by: MGM/Columbia
Running time: 118 minutes