The Robocop remake is not as bad as everyone feared it would be, but that’s also not quite the same thing as the movie being good. Obviously the remake in no way comes close to matching the wacko, blood soaked satirical success of Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 masterpiece. However, it’s not as if that little diamond of entertainment has been left untouched since then. There have already been two disappointing Robocop sequels as well as a crappy cartoon and an even worse live action TV series. Robocop’s legacy has already been sullied by projects far worse than this remake.
It probably ranks just below Robocop 2 in the franchise (and Robocop 2 isn’t very good either. Robocop 3 is just that bad). But I digress. Fanboy rankings aside, the primary issue here is intent. The original Robocop represented a cockeyed satire of America and Hollywood action movies at a time when such a thing was sorely needed. This Robocop attempts to sneak in a little political satire, but ultimately fails and is dogged by a PG-13 rating that neuters the cartoony ultra violence that is as much a key to the original flick’s appeal as the titular robotic cop. What we have here is a decent sci-fi action movie marred by the fact that it shares a title with one of the all time greatest examples of the genre and never manages to meet, overcome, or even subvert expectations. The remake just is what it is and that’s all that it is… sigh…
The film opens with a Bill O’Reilly-style bad opinion show hosted by Samuel L. Jackson, discussing how those Ed 209 robots we all loved from the first movie are now being used as drones “protecting” the Middle East. Shockingly, the sequence is laced with the anti-totalitarian humor that defined the original, even if the violence has been toned down to PG-13 levels. From there, the plot follows the original structure very closely. Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is a good cop who is blown up to bits by a big jerk criminal (Patrick Garrow), only this time with a more family friendly car bomb. His destroyed body is given over to a big scary corporation who are trying to get law enforcement drones legalized in the US. Michael Keaton leads this corporation, and he wants to break his crime-busting robots into the America by shoving the brain, face, and nervous system of Murphy into a robot. He hires nice guy super scientist Gary Oldman to do so, and thus Detroit gets a Robocop. The whole human mind thing proves to be less efficient than software, so Keaton and a guilty Oldman mess around with Murphy’s brain matter to the dismay of his family. Soon Robocop is facing a man/machine internal battle, Keaton’s corporation is becoming extra evil. Jackson’s TV show is getting extra satirically silly, and stuff starts blowing up real good. Yep, it’s a Robocop movie.
As sleek cyborg superhero entertainment it’s entirely passable. The trouble is that it’s nothing special and dogged with problems.
That’s the thing about Jose Padilha’s robo-reboot: it’s clearly been made by people who understand the appeal of Paul Verhoeven’s subversive masterpiece. Original screenwriter Edward Neumeier (who also penned Starship Troopers) returns to sneak in social commentary. The man/machine struggle is fairly well played by Kinnaman. The supporting players like Keaton, Oldman, and Jackson act up a storm to give their villains a certain cartoon charm. The action is well staged even if it has to be completely bloodless for the sake of the ratings system. It’s actually a Robocop remake that feels like a Robocop movie for the most part. As sleek cyborg superhero entertainment it’s entirely passable. The trouble is that it’s nothing special and dogged with problems. The biggest problem is tonal.
While the original film (and even the ok-ish sequel) masterfully pitched action movie tropes to the point of hysterical self-parody, the filmmakers behind the remake weren’t quite so assured tonally. It feels like at one point this remake was a straight-up Nolan-dark take on Robocop, an overly earnest version of a story that shouldn’t have been told that way. Then at some point during preproduction, someone must have mentioned that Robocop movies are supposed to be funny and some satirical stylization was awkwardly plastered over the cracks. As a result, there’s never enough comedy kicking around for the movie to be consistently funny, but there is enough to undermine any attempt at serious drama that the filmmakers make. So as a result, the film is a bit of a muddled mess.
So, what we have here is a serviceable Robocop remake that isn’t nearly as bad as it could or should have been and is actually fairly entertaining when taken on its own terms. It’s a passable experience. The trouble is that the flick is based on a great movie and constantly reminds audiences of the brilliant original through winks, nods, and stolen sequences. The biggest problem with Robocop 2.0 is that it has no reason to exist. There already is a great Robocop movie out there that does everything this remake attempts to do better and nothing added to the material makes it feel more contemporarily resonant. It just makes the movie feel like a current blockbuster with a CGI sheen and a screenplay rewritten to the point of exhaustion. The best you can say about this remake is that it isn’t awful. Granted, that’s more than anyone expected from the movie, but not exactly a reason to run out to the theater, now is it? If you know someone young and impressionable enough to want to see this Robocop remake, please do them a big, big favor and buy them a copy of the original film instead. They will be eternally grateful.