The new RoboCop movie offers more talking points than a Sunday afternoon spent surfing political news shows, which makes it more earnest, if not necessarily smarter than the deceptively lightweight 1987 original by Dutch director Paul Verhoeven. The original Robocop was a campy Reagan-era parable about authority and corporate culture, but also a pulpy demonstration of a popular eighties science-fiction movie theme about the merging of human flesh and machines.
The current movie tones down the gore but revs ups the rhetoric about the media-military industrial complex. We begin in a television studio in 2028, where a Fox News-style right-wing host, Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson) is doing a fawning interview with a Pentagon general, while promoting the latest robotic military hardware. The television show cuts to a live story in Iran, where a TV crew shows us American-made robots busy “pacifying” the streets of the (recently invaded) Tehran, both bug-like monsters the size of tanks and human-shaped ones. Everything seems to be going perfectly until a troublesome adolescent suicide protester waves a knife at a robot, and the feed quickly cuts back to the studio for “security reasons.” Unfazed, Novak makes his case to the public: When is “robophobic” America going to wake up, and allow robots, provided by the OmniCorp company, ensure the safety of its streets?
OmniCorp is run by a hip, jeans-wearing CEO, Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), who has a big public perception problem: How can he make his great law-enforcement product seem citizen-friendly? Fortunately, OmniCorp is a one-stop military supplier that also makes prosthetic limbs under the direction of Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman). If they can just a find policeman whose body is irreparably damaged, they can give him a robot body, a gateway to cornering the market on privatized robotic policing.
The chosen candidate is Detroit police detective Alex Murphy (Swedish-American actor Joel Kinnaman), a surly, insubordinate cop whose partner is in the hospital after an undercover guns-dealing sting operation went wrong. The bad guys are determined to get rid of Murphy before he can arrest them, so they bomb his car, leaving not much more than a brain, a set of lungs and an arm. Murphy has a devoted wife, Clara (Abbie Cornish) and young son. Clara gives Norton permission to keep Alex alive in some form.
Three months later, Alex wakes up in a factory lab in China – and though he dreams he’s dancing with his wife on the back patio, in reality, he’s hooked up to a machine with transistors stuck in his brain. Alex attempts to break out of the place, bursting through a Chinese sweatshop and ends up in an adjacent rice paddy (one of the film’s best surreal visual moments) before Norton shuts him down by remote control.
After a long stretch of recalibration, Norton figures out how to give Murphy “the illusion of free will” in combat situations, while the rest of the time, he can walk around like a knight in Kevlar armour. The drawn-out first half of the movie focuses on the attempts to get RoboCop up and running before the crime-fighting action kicks in. A lot of attention is given to the doses of antidepressants, dopamine and nutrients that decrease Alex’s capacity for second thoughts.
For all the developments in technology, astute viewers may notice some shortfalls in 2028. Oil to stop the robot suit from squeaking and rasping, for example. Also in short supply are three-dimensional roles for women, or politically sensitive language about disabilities, with more than one character employing the misguided phrase “confined to a wheelchair.” But what do you expect from an action flick?
Well, thrilling action, to start. Brazil’s Jose Padilha’s films Elite Squad and Elite Squad: The Enemy Within established him as a well-regarded action director, though the hand-held fight sequences here, with their video-game technology, often border on prismatic incoherence. As RoboCop cleans up the streets, the scenes suggest Batman outfitted with Google Glasses, as Alex scoots through the Detroit streets on his streamlined black motorcycle while a barrage of streaming images and data flood across his viewfinder. As in the original film, RoboCop eventually targets the thugs who tried to kill him, and then runs afoul of the people who claimed to be his saviour.
Though this RoboCop can’t come close to capturing the clever-silly audacity of the original, one area in which the current film easily surpasses it is in the quality of the cast. Kinnaman (star of the Norwegian thriller Easy Money and AMC’s series The Killing) is a complicated, intelligent actor who makes Murphy seem emotionally grounded, even if he is essentially a head on a metal structure. The cast throughout feels overqualified for what they’re required to do. Keaton is particularly entertaining as a sort of sociopathic Steve Jobs, exasperated at his underlings’ lack of ambition: (“I don’t know how to sell ‘okay’ ”). His subordinates include Jennifer Ehle (Zero Dark Thirty) as a shark-like lawyer, with Jay Baruchel as the in-house spin doctor: “I’m just in marketing,” he begs when the going gets scary.
Several scenes are about the RoboCop sales campaign, including the decision to make the new corporate hero’s armour black as a better way to sell him to the public. The dialogue could easily be a transcript of the studio’s own spit-ball session on how to sell the RoboCop reboot.