Because many studios are hard up for original ideas these days, remaking movies from the 1980s has been all the rage. Fame, Footloose, The Karate Kid, Red Dawn — all of these and more have been remade in order to play upon the nostalgia of anyone who came of age during that time.
The latest is a new Robocop, with Joel Kinnaman (The Killing) taking over as Alex Murphy from Peter Weller. The film still mostly takes place in Detroit and still involves a badly injured police officer being turned into Robocop. After the premise is set up, the similarities to the 1987 version stop pretty quickly.
Particularly enjoyable are segments with conservative TV host Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson), which offer not-so-subtle media commentary.
This time around, the need for Robocop arises due to the ambitions of Omnicorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton). Sellars desperately wants to bring his law enforcement robots, which he’s deployed in foreign countries like Iran, to the U.S., but he’s been blocked by Congress from doing do.
To sway people’s opinions, he needs a robot that still feels some human emotions, which is where Murphy, who nearly dies following a car bomb, comes into play. But Murphy is not as easily controllable as Sellars and Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) think he is, leading to complications almost right from the start.
There’s lots of subtext at play in the vision of director Jose Padilha and writer Joshua Zetumer. They bring in Middle Eastern tensions, the uneasy bond between government and big business, and how the media shapes the public’s perception. Even though the film is set 14 years in the future, not much seems to have changed in that regard.
Particularly enjoyable are occasional segments with conservative TV host Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson), who uses his bully pulpit to advocate the use of robot police on Omnicorp’s behalf. It’s a not-so-subtle commentary on certain media networks always taking one side, and with Jackson as the mouthpiece, it’s highly entertaining.
Of course, how well Murphy adapts to his new condition is still the central thread, and it’s one that’s in flux throughout the film. Padilha and Zetumer want us to invest in the bond Murphy has with his wife and son, but their attempts at personalizing his story never really connect.
What does work is the constant manipulation of Murphy by Sellars, Norton and other Omnicorp employees. Some see him as merely a pawn, others as still a person, and this push-and-pull turns out to be more interesting than whether or not Robocop is a useful law enforcement tool.
Inevitably, then, Kinnaman hardly makes an impact as Murphy/Robocop. Keaton and Oldman get all the juicy scenes, while Kinnaman is forced to make do with the occasional gunfight. With his face masked by either blank stares or the actual Robocop visor, Kinnaman never gets to show any kind of range.
Still, Robocop is a solid retread of a concept that’s probably held in higher esteem than it should be. Anyone not overly reverent of the original film should be able to acknowledge the merits of this reboot.