Take Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop, then strip away all the fury, the violence, the satire, the groundbreaking visual effects, and the unique storytelling style, and what you’re left with… is still a pretty good story.
That may be the lesson we have to learn from José Padilha’s RoboCop, a by-the-numbers comic book version of what was once an ingenious fever dream. Padilha’s interpretation isn’t the sparkling M80 Verhoeven lobbed at audiences in 1987. How could it be? And while the question of whether it was actually necessary to remake RoboCop and deprive it of Verhoeven’s iconic individuality has been answered in an absolute “negative,” the fundamentally meaningful tale of a person transformed into a corporate commodity, fighting to the death to reclaim his soul, is still a thrill.
The broad strokes are the same: Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is a police officer and family man whose body is destroyed by a violent gang. A corrupt organization, OmniCorp, rebuilds his body for urban pacification, keeping a few recognizable chunks of human flesh intact to appease consumers who are – understandably – wary of automated machines keeping the peace on American soil. Alex Murphy disappears, and RoboCop takes his place, but Murphy’s mind can’t be sterilized for long and he eventually turns on his capitalist overlords to prove once and for all that he is a man, not a product.
The details are very different: José Padilha’s RoboCop draws obvious parallels between the use of a cyborg peacekeeper in Detroit with the international drone strikes of which Americans seem to by-and-large approve. Verhoeven’s farcically wrongheaded televised broadcasts are replaced with a merely spot-on approximation of Fox News (which is functionally the same thing).
Perhaps more significantly, Verhoeven’s underlying thesis – that white-collar criminality is just as evil as, and perhaps fundamentally intertwined with, violent street crime – has been replaced with a cynical acceptance of corporate corruption. OmniCorp begins their “RoboCop” program with at least arguably good intentions, but in the process of streamlining their product and managing their company’s image they make increasingly soulless decisions that benefit the consumer at the cost of the suppliers’ integrity and moral standing.
It is here that Padilha seems the most intrigued by the fundamental concept of RoboCop. Whereas the original film transformed Alex Murphy into a mindless construct over the course of a brief montage, the 2014 interpretation spends the better part of an hour detailing this metamorphosis. OmniCorp acquires the permission of Murphy’s family and eventually Murphy himself to turn him into a monster, and as an actor, Kinnaman is fortunately up to the challenge of capturing the hero’s disgust with this new state of existence, particularly in a gruesome mirror sequence that I suspect would make David Cronenberg proud, or at least perk up in his seat a little.
Padilha is far less interested in the mechanics of his plot, which is unfortunate. His film abolishes any relationship between Murphy’s “murder” and the machinations of corporate America but leaves the quest for vengeance intact, forcing the action to be disconnected from the meat of his movie. The proper movie is instead full of laissez-faire philosophizing and righteous outbursts in equal measure, and relegates the crimefighting dynamics mostly to a finale that engages but never truly excels, mostly because – although we still want 2014 Murphy to emerge as victorious as his 1987 predecessor – the obstacles in his way don’t carry nearly the same dramatic weight.
But RoboCop remains an intriguing idea for a hero, and a potent allegory for an age in which reading the legal advisories on technology is too much of a hassle for most people to bother with. Padilha’s remake has some ideas to explore but he never embraces the broad theatricality necessary to make them spectacular entertainment. He settles instead for a colder, more efficient product that gets the job done without earning much in the way of applause. Unlike the disappointing sci-fi retreads The Thing and Total Recall, however, this new version of RoboCop is at least a satisfying piece of three-star genre filmmaking that demonstrates a working knowledge of what made the original story work. Why the breathless, energetic storytelling had to be sacrificed for the 21st Century remains a mystery.