I was barely old enough to catch Paul Verhoeven’s ROBOCOP in theatres back in 1987. Shocking for its violence, the offbeat sci-fi flick was a surprise blockbuster and warranted frequent rental on VHS in my neck of the woods.
It took a while to appreciate the Dutch director’s dark satire. Yes, the movie was true to Edward Neumeier’s story of a human policeman turned into a technological crime-fighting machine—but Verhoeven was also concerned with what it meant to be human in a dystopia where corrupt corporations make backroom deals with crooked politicians and constituent / consumers numb themselves with narcotics and schlock television.
Verhoeven was strikingly prescient. Today, our streets are monitored by robot radar and dashboard-mounted cameras. Our military employs unmanned drones to annihilate the enemy (and collaterals) in hard-to-reach places around the globe, and secret agents comb our personal data in the name of freedom and safety. Judges, mayors, and presidents make headlines for doing drugs, taking bribes, and indulging extramarital activities—and Tweeting about it. At home, We the Sheeple vegetate to American Idol, Duck Dynasty, and The Bachelor on programmable idiot boxes.
Orwell saw this coming. Huxley and Bradbury, too, prophesied the chokehold big government would have on its citizenry. Rush sang about it in 1976. Verhoeven tackled it with ROBOCOP and STARSHIP TROOPERS. You can't copy that sort of vision, that sardonic wit. You can try, but the results are usually transparent. Especially on the the big screen.
Given Hollywood’s reuse / recycle trend, it was only a matter of time before some ambitious Dick Jones sized up Robo for a reboot. There’s a pile of money to be had and too little time and patience to prep original material for today’s mega-plexes. Directed by Brazilian TV commercial maker Jose Padilha, ROBOCOP v. 2014 is a shadow of Verhoeven’s wickedly funny, face-melting original. The narrative pays significantly more attention to the protagonist’s widowed wife, Clara (Abie Cornish) and fatherless son, but at the expense of action. It doesn’t give Joel Kinneman’s titular hero room to stretch out, much less any reason to.
Unlike Peter Weller’s do-right cop (who was shot-gunned to death), Kinneman’s straight-laced Alex Murphy isn’t quite a corpse when he’s fitted with armor plating and a leftover Cylon helmet from Battlestar Galactica. He’s merely critically injured, which is enough for those greedy, amoral execs at Omni Corp to wrest him away from his family and convert him, Frankenstein-style, into a prototype crime-fighting product. Omni Corp already reaps profits from its military contracts overseas, but a persnickety thing called The Dreyfus Act prohibits robot use on American soil. It’s something to do with police officers being able to “think” and “feel” before pulling a trigger.
The legislation comes under review in the senate when a robot blasts a teenage kid during a shootout in Tehran, but Omni Corp has to make good on its promise to equip Detroit with biomechanical law enforcement personnel and is short on candidates for prosthetic overhaul. Murphy’s bereft wife signs the consent forms needed to “save” him in a metal shell and prays there’ll be enough of the man left to maintain their marriage. But Omni Corp CEO Ray Sellars (Michael Keaton) puts the kibosh on prolonged family contact and fast-tracks Murphy for automaton orientation.
OCP Chief Scientist Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) salvages what shockingly little remains of Murphy’s broken body and pumps his brain with “nice dreams” of dancing to Sinatra with Clara. Upon waking / activation, Murphy takes the news of his near-death and metal makeover rather well—notwithstanding a temperamental sprint off OCP grounds—then resumes his police beat with a vengeance. Omni Corp has him train with grizzled military strategist Rick Mattox (Jackie Earle Haley), a combat vet who doesn’t appreciate the fleshy vestiges before him. Rather, Mattox treats Murphy like any other EM-208 pupil—a humanoid “it”—and bestows the derogatory nickname Tin Man.
Murphy’s spare parts are plunked in the same chrome chassis Weller sported ages ago. But Sellars surmises people don’t really know what they want until they see it and orders up something more tactical. “Let’s go black,” he says. Murphy definitely looks more Iron Man than trash can in his onyx Kevlar, lanky and sleek, but we ached for the return of the clunky-but-classic Weller suit before long.
For some dumb reason, Norton initiates upload of the sum total of Detroit’s criminal database into Robo / Murphy’s electronic files moments before his public unveiling. Upon seeing (and looping) video footage of his own attempted murder, Murphy suffers a seizure so catastrophic that Norton is forced to flood him with stabilizing dopamine. It works: Outside, Robo / Murphy immediately IDs and apprehends a wanted fugitive—and ignores his wife and son in the process (apart from registering them as “non-threats”). Robo’s debut makes headlines, but Sellars demands Norton permanently tweak his programming to prevent emotional reattachment with Clara.
During a guns-a-blazing test trial, Norton explains that Robo / Murphy’s cerebral circuitry controls all his decisions and actions while letting the organic brain think it’s still the man calling the shots. It’s a convenient, carefully maintained illusion.
As in the original, Robo / Murphy initially submits to his programming and stoically dispatches miscreants and thugs with practiced ease. There’s even a “Prime Directive” failsafe worked in to prevent him from harming a “red asset.” But when Murphy learns the gun-runners who injured him are being supplied and protected from within his own department, he gets twitchy in a hurry. Clara’s refusal to move on only reinforces his humanity. Murphy resists—and ultimately rebels—the more his conscience is called into play. The man inside the appliance doesn’t appreciate his handlers using him with the reticence of someone nuking a frozen dinner in the microwave. Until the conflicted Norton intercedes, he’s at the mercy of their on / off switch.
By the time Robo / Murphy starts kicking proverbial ass, it’s too late. The middle of the 118-minute movie is weighed down by Omni Corp table-talk (we can’t stand Jay Baruchel’s voice) and laboratory banter, and Murphy spends too many minutes propped up or clamped down at headquarters. He eventually goes head-to-head with hulking ED-209 sentries, captures or kills his “murderers,” and confronts his corporate oppressors—but it’s all despairingly anticlimactic. Even an earlier set piece wherein Robo is tested against a dozen EM-208s in a warehouse lacks resonance; it’s all just loud flashes and explosions. Padilha’s ROBOCOP never disengages the autopilot.
The reboot boasts acting talents at least equal—if not superior to—Verhoeven’s film. Keaton is convincing as the Steve Jobs-ish OCP exec pining for effective product and killer marketing campaigns at all costs. Oldman, suddenly looking younger than his years, plays a dedicated doctor thrust into a moral quandary. Samuel L. Jackson’s television talk-show host / agent provocateur bookends the proceedings; his blustery pro-Robo pundit Pat Novak delivers most of the laughs. And no, it wasn’t lost on this geek that I was watching Nick Fury (Jackson) interview Batman (Keaton), who then consults Commissioner Gordon (Oldman). Nancy Allen’s Lewis has been rewritten as a man; partner Anne is now Jack.
But the script has neither the juicy dialogue nor dark twists for even Keaton to eclipse Ronny Cox’s sinister suit, or for Patrick Garrow to verbally spar with Kurtwood Smith’s outrageous Clarence Boddicker. We love Keaton—but his lisp has never been more pronounced, nor his lines so seasoned with sibilant S’s and soft-C’s. It’s as if the writers wanted to emphasize his say-it-don’t-spray-it sufferin’ succotash Sylvester the Cat speech quirk.
Heck, maybe the lisp is part of the reason why we dig Keaton.
Padilha pilfers requisite taglines and quotes from 1987 (“Thank you for your cooperation,” “Dead or alive, you’re coming with me,” “You have 20 seconds to comply,”) and the obligatory “I’ll buy that for a dollar” for nostalgia. He also hijacks the musical theme. But there’s no new dialogue to compete with other oft-cited ROBO riffs like “Mind if I zip this up?” “Hey, Dicky boy” and “Bitches leave.” Robo / Murphy’s crimson-visor profile is beak-ish, like a bird of prey, and he rides a motorcycle instead of a standard police cruiser. But he doesn’t twirl his sidearm like T.J. Lazer, and his voice doesn’t sound electronically filtered whatsoever (Kinneman speaks in monotone as the sedated Robo). The fun’s zapped right out of the character.
Cornish’s widow cries and whines so much we’re tempted to root for Sellars, if only so Clara can learn to let go of her husband—and we can see the Robocop we remember.
Don’t you recall the first time you beheld ED-209 onscreen (in glorious stop-motion), and how you roared when it counted down and strafed an unarmed associate across a conference room desk? There’s none of that awesome here. Lots of Robo husk but precious little heart. 2 out of 4 stars.