ROBOCOP review by Mark Walters – this reboot is better than expected, but still disjointed

ROBOCOP review by Mark Walters – this reboot is better than expected, but still disjointed


In this day of remakes and reboots, there are some properties many might think are a little more sacred than others. I remember when I first heard Sony was remaking ROBOCOP… it felt like sacrilege. The original 1987 movie by Paul Verhoeven starring Peter Weller is such a classic, and still holds up even today. It didn’t seem like a project that needed to be remade (not that many do), but it also begged the question of what could be done different with a modern day update. The cast started coming together, filled with impressive names, though the lead role was given to a mostly unknown actor. Joel Kinnaman was primarily known for his role in THE KILLING on AMC, but he would now take on one of the most iconic Sci-Fi heroes of all time.

The new ROBOCOP opens with a Bill O’Reilly-esque newsman named Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson) telling the audience how OmniCorp’s cybernetic soldiers have been keeping peace in Tehran, preventing needless deaths of U.S. military and developing a strict and solid defense against terrorism. The robots, developed by a Steve Jobs type named Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), don’t seem very welcome by the residents of the Tehran villages, and there’s even a terrorist act carried out while the Novak broadcast runs live. As the cameras cut away from the carnage, we begin to see that this peaceful protection program may not be flawless after all. Back in Detroit, detective Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) reports to his captain after his partner Jack Lewis (Michael K. Williams) is wounded during a botched bust of crime lord Antoine Vallon (Patrick Garrow). Implications are made of crooked cops tipping off the bad guys, but Murphy isn’t given much sympathy from his superior. Alex comes home to his loving wife Clara (Abbie Cornish) and son David (John Paul Ruttan), but it’s obvious his job has created a bit of an emotional void within the family. Vallon, getting nervous about the good cops getting so close, decides to have Murphy taken out. While all this is going on, Sellars is brainstorming with his resident cybernetic genius Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) about how to create a robotic defender the public can really get behind and sympathize with. The decision is made to put a man in a machine, now they just need a subject. When Murphy falls victim to a nearly-fatal bomb, he is determined to be the perfect candidate for Sellars’ project… RoboCop. With Alex’s health and survival in serious jeopardy, Clara feels there’s no choice but to sign off on him becoming a medical subject for Dr. Norton. At first, Alex’s new body and objective looks like it might be workable for all involved, but Sellars decides to remove his emotional side and personal identity, turning the man into just a mindless machine that follows orders. But fate may have other plans for our unlikely hero.

Where the original ROBOCOP explored the concept of turning a man into a machine, and the remnants of that man overcoming his coldly robotic transformation, director José Padilha’s remake explores the reverse dichotomy. This RoboCop starts as an emotional hero forced into this scary new body, who is then stripped of his humanity when the emotions get in the way. And for the first hour or so of the film this works pretty well and stays fairly interesting. There’s one particular scene that is haunting and tragic, in which Alex Murphy sees what is truly left of who he once was… it’s a Frankenstein-esque moment of tragedy that lingers with the audience throughout the rest of the film, and may just be the strongest moment of the piece. There’s also certain scenes that work very well, such as Robo getting tested with other robotic subjects while “Hocus Pocus” by Focus plays in the background, or moments when Gary Oldman argues the bastardization of science over humanity with Michael Keaton. But as the movie hits its second half, things start to go South and get a little messy.

Kinnaman does fine playing Alex Murphy as more of a tough street detective with a bit of thug-like nature under his cold demeanor. It’s a drastically different take on the character than what Weller did, but in many ways it works. Oldman is, of course, terrific with the material he’s given as the Dr. Frankenstein with the best of intentions. It’s always fun watching a strong actor like him execute his scenes so effortlessly. Michael Keaton, who is seeing a bit of a comeback on the big screen lately, is less menacing than you want him to be as the corporate baddie, but it’s still great watching him work. One of the things that made the original movie so good was the sleazy corporate bad guys who ran OCP, and Keaton’s character is more of a metrosexual intellectual type… like I said before, a sort of Steve Jobs type of guy. His turn to the dark side feels less natural and more done out of necessity, as this is a guy who in theory could have had truly good intentions. Jackie Earle Haley shows up as one of the more fun and memorable characters, playing a military weapons expert who does his best to give RoboCop a proper workout, and Samuel L. Jackson sinks his teeth into his role of a master media manipulator mugging for the cameras. Sadly, Abbie Cornish and Michael K. Williams are fairly underdeveloped, leaving me to wonder if there was originally more story that was trimmed for time. It’s interesting particularly with Williams, as the character of “Lewis” in the original was a big and important role. Here, that character is changed in gender and color, but there’s not much reasoning behind it. I would have like more exploration into the partnership between Williams and Kinnaman’s roles as two detectives trying to maintain order in a city of corrupt cops.

ROBOCOP runs almost two solid hours, and at times feels like it drags more than it needed to. There’s plenty of action interspersed within the story, but those scenes feel more obligatory than natural. Certain decisions seem unnecessary, such as making the costume black (it actually starts out with a more classic design, similar to the Weller suit), or putting Robo on a motorcycle instead of using a car. And there’s also the issue of a rather awkward (there’s just no other word for it) ending that will leave many in the audience feeling incomplete. I can honestly say I expected the film to be a disaster, just based on things I had seen and heard, but I was pleasantly surprised by most of it. It should also be noted for a PG-13 movie it makes the most of its violence, and even manages to throw in a few unexpected and even shocking kills that make it feel more like R-rated fare. There’s nods to the original film, such as using the exact same sound effects for RoboCop’s movement, certain catch phrases incorporated in new and different ways, and a few uses of the original theme music in the soundtrack. But make no mistake, this take on the character is far removed from the 1987 version in many other aspects. It’s safe to say it’s not anywhere near as strong of a movie as the original, but as a remake it could have been a lot worse.

ROBOCOP opens February 12, 2014

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About the Author

Born and raised in Dallas, Mark has been a movie critic since 1994, with reviews featured in print, radio and National TV. In 2001 he started the Entertainment section of the Herorealm website, where he contributed film reviews and celebrity interviews until 2004. After three years of service there, he started, which has become one of the Dallas film community's leading information websites. Bigfanboy hosts several movie screenings in the Texas area, and works closely with film and TV studios and promotional partners to host exciting events and contests. The site also features a variety of rare celebrity and filmmaker interviews, and regularly covers the film festival circuit as well. In addition to Hollywood reporting, Mark has worked for many years as an advertising and sci-fi/comic book artist. Clients have included Lucasfilm Ltd., Topps Trading Cards, The Dallas Mavericks and The Dallas Stars. From 2002 until 2015 he managed the Dallas Comic Con, Sci-Fi Expo and Fan Days events in the DFW area. He currently catalogs rare comic books and movie memorabilia for Heritage Auctions, and runs the Dallas Comic Show conventions, but remains an avid moviegoer and cinema buff.