To remake a classic film poorly is a crime — like defacing an irreplaceable artifact, or murder. To remake a classic film serviceably is less heinous, comparably, like forgery, or littering. Even to those most affected, there’s no irrevocable damage. The original 1987 ROBOCOP is a legitimate masterpiece and as long as genre fans and cineastes like you and me draw breath, it will always be regarded as such. On that long list of all the movies ever made, the new ROBOCOP will now sit next to it alphabetically, but so will 1990’s ROBOCOP 2 and 1993’s ROBOCOP 3. My point is, even if the idea of a ROBOCOP remake strikes you as heresy, in reality it’s no more than a small nuisance, and in retrospect, it will have no more detrimental effect on the legacy of the original classic than an inferior sequel would or has.
That’s a lofty way to say, “Calm down.” I’m with you, but relax a little.
Nobody wanted a ROBOCOP remake. From the moment the idea became an official announcement, fans of the original film, myself included, started talking shit and never stopped. We decried the pictures of the new suit, we insisted the PG-13 rating would preclude the unique blend of grotesque violence and vicious politics of the original, we wondered how such a great cast was squandering their talents in such a useless gesture. In my head, I never want to go into a movie and not like it — why would I want to consider two hours of precious life wasted? — but in my heart, I didn’t want to like this movie.
The corporate idea behind remaking well-known films is that the younger audiences — the prime ticket-buying demographic — has vague awareness of the earlier work, they’ve only heard good things, they’re more likely to pick up on the name recognition, and so they’ll go. It’s the rare studio executive, you gotta figure, who really cares about pleasing the surlier older fans of the originals. Unfortunately, fan culture today is dominated by the types who are pacified by the most simple tips of the cap to their passion — those are the people who will clap when they hear the new RoboCop say “Dead or alive, you’re coming with me.” Those are the people who are satisfied when the recognizable and brilliant Basil Poledouris theme is briefly heard, souped up for 2014, over the opening title card. That’s all those types need. Anyway, if you’re asking why ROBOCOP was remade, that’s why. Of course, those surlier older fans, like myself, need far more justification.
A remake can’t win with us. We’re always going to compare it to its source. In this case, 1987’s ROBOCOP, written by Ed Neumeier and Matt Miner and directed by Paul Verhoeven, is so beloved that the memories of having watched it a dozen times hang over the experience of watching the remake like the phantom limb syndrome that the multiple-amputee turned robot fighting machine Alex Murphy feels in the new movie. 1987’s ROBOCOP was a dead-on satire of the Reagan ’80s, a product of its time and a joke at its expense, a spoof of the excesses of rampant capitalism and commercialism. Its spiritual brethren was WALL STREET, released the same year, a movie whose signature line, “Greed is good,” has been misquoted and misinterpreted as an endorsement of nihilistic behavior. (It may or may not be a coincidence that WALL STREET and ROBOCOP 2014 use the same Frank Sinatra song.)
Likewise, in 1987 ROBOCOP was misunderstood by many who missed the forest for the trees, seeing only the extreme violence and missing its profound relevance. Many astute critics saw it for what it was, happily, and of course there were probably those who loved it exactly for the extreme violence. Long before I was old enough to see the movie, I remember seeing newspaper ads touting ROBOCOP‘s box office success. (“Fourth week at #1!” or some such.) The script by Neumeier and Miner, which cannily set the film in Detroit, the nation’s automotive capital, conjured up the idea of futuristic crime-enforcement being a product of industry. White guys in suits, not mad scientists, were the ones who bankrolled the creation of the title character, a heroic cop mauled by criminals in the line of duty, who was re-created with robot parts to be the model of crime-fighting efficiency.
Rob Bottin, the effects genius who previously worked on John Carpenter’s take on THE THING, designed the iconic look of RoboCop, as kind of a cross between Cyclops from the X-Men and a sports car. Peter Weller ably portrayed both versions of Alex Murphy, the man and the 2.0, and Nancy Allen provided the much-needed humanity as his partner on the force. Ronny Cox and Miguel Ferrer were dead-on as the corporate types at the top, while Kurtwood Smith, Paul McCrane, and Ray Wise made up an unforgettable rogues’ gallery as the murderous menagerie who killed Murphy the first time. When I first saw ROBOCOP, I was still young enough that its over-the-top intensity could shock and disturb me. Later, I recognized the comic-booky nature of the movie, the surreal lunacy of all the tits and gore, the humor and the sly commentary. That ROBOCOP works on multiple planes of experience and understanding is a credit to the smart satirical writing and the pitch-perfect direction from Paul Verhoeven, a true madman in the best sense whose fearlessness and embrace of excess is key to the execution of what is one of the best sci-fi action films ever made and released in America, let alone its own decade.
All of the above is what a ROBOCOP remake is facing when it unspools itself in front of my eyes.
So I didn’t plan on kinda liking the new movie. No one is more surprised than me that I did. Then again, there was always hope: The director who was hired to tackle this thankless task is José Padilha, who co-wrote and directed (among others) two bold, brutal films in his native Brazil, ELITE SQUAD and ELITE SQUAD: THE ENEMY WITHIN, action thrillers centered around police corruption which proved Padilha could not only expertly direct action, but to put it in service of politics and ideas. (I liked the first more than the second, but both are highly worth seeing.) Padilha is a very different talent than Verhoeven but clearly a talent; assuming one wanted to see a remake of ROBOCOP, Padilha would be a logical choice to direct. Ideally, one wouldn’t force him to work within the neutered confines of a PG-13 rating, but that is what was done. This is the America we live in today. It’s very hard to get an R-rated sci-fi action film out, in a time where superheroes are the order of the day. Superman and Batman can kill lots of people, but not directly on-screen; after all, they still need to be able to appear in movies about Legos.
The people at the top seemed confident a new ROBOCOP would be a hit with a PG-13; I suspect the box office returns are about to prove them wrong. You kind of can’t have a movie where Samuel L. Jackson looks at the screen and yells “MOTHERFUCKER!” and bleep it out. (Which happens.) That’s like making a Godzilla movie where Godzilla has rainbows instead of fire coming out of his mouth.
Samuel L. is a lot of fun in the movie, by the way — if you want to know why he’s wearing that hilarious hairpiece, it’s because in his role as “Pat Novak,” the host of The Novak Element, the right-wing talking-heads program which serves as the movie’s Greek chorus, he’s basically playing a thinly-veiled piss-take on Bill O’Reilly and his lousy ilk. As ROBOCOP ’14 opens, Tehran is shown — through the eyes of Novak’s remote camera team — being occupied by ED-208s and ED-209s, American-made and American-operated robots which police war-torn areas with mechanical precision. Regardless of what the film geeks make of ROBOCOP ’14, our conservative friends who’ve long yearned to see suicide bombers pulverized by deadly robot-wielded arm-cannons have a new favorite movie.
Padilha has a bit more on his mind. What makes these early action scenes more morally interesting than they might have been is that they begin in the homes of the bombers, as they strap bombs on their chests against the protests and cries of their wives and children. These very fleeting moments last just long enough to register — right from the start, there’s an attempt at two-handedness, at moral ambiguity. If anything, the political overtones are a little too clear: We’re obviously talking about drone warfare here. Pat Novak is a huge proponent of the peace-through-violent-robot element. He treasures American life above all, to the obvious exclusion of not-American life. He’s half right, isn’t he? After all, nobody wants American soldiers to die. Who can argue with that?
The mastermind behind the robotics is Raymond Sellars, head of OmniCorp (a subsidiary of OCP, see), and he’s played by Michael Keaton. His notion is to bring these robots home, to have them police city streets as they do overseas. His plan is to staff the nation with robot cops. The public doesn’t want that; they like their cops with a bit of conscience, humanity. A political initiative called the Dreyfus Act (intriguing naming if you know your history) has tied Sellars’ hands. The act is named for its originator, Senator Dreyfus, played by veteran character actor Zach Grenier in a role one wishes were a bit larger. So Sellars, along with a staff played by ace character actors Jennifer Ehle and Jay Baruchel, plots to circumnavigate this roadblock by creating a half-human robot hybrid, using the country’s best and brightest amputees. At the same time, undercover detectives Alex Murphy and Jack Lewis (Joel Kinnaman and Michael K. Williams) are investigating a master criminal named Antoine Vallon, who may have more than one Detroit cop under his thumb. Getting too close to cracking the case, Murphy is blown up by a car bomb within eyesight of his wife and young son, and so Sellars has his man. He has his best cybernetics surgeon, Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman at his kindliest), spearhead the complex process of re-acclimating Murphy to life as RoboCop. The invaluable Jackie Earle Haley is on hand as Mattox, the gung-ho weapons expert who prefers the remorselessness of the bipedal ED-208 models to the human-occupied prototype. A conscience, he argues, slows the weaponry down.
If you made it through the previous paragraph, you’ll notice at least one thing: This movie has one of the best supporting casts a project like this could ever get. This means that, no matter what you think of the end result, these actors were drawn in by the script by the soon-to-be ubiquitous Joshua Zetumer — which from what I can see of it on the screen is full of intriguing sci-fi notions (the life support system keeping Murphy alive, the taser bullets, etc.) — or by the prospect of working with José Padilha, who, whatever the flaws with the film, turns in some solid action scenes. The one where RoboCop takes on a warehouse full of henchmen in total darkness is a highlight. Cynics might argue all these great actors took the job for the money, but I don’t think so — some of these people don’t need the work. (One suspects Sam Jackson took his part to send up some obnoxious voices who loom a bit too large over our modern culture.) In particular I find it interesting that Michael Keaton is in this movie. Keaton used to headline movies like this one; he seems to be making a slow comeback but his devilishly lovable presence has been missing from mainstream movies for far too long. Ultimately the casting works against the effectiveness of the film — I doubt it’s a spoiler to note that his character is the main villain of the piece, but it’s such a pleasure to see Michael Keaton in such a prominent role that it’s impossible to hate him, like at all. And the final confrontation, where he is dispatched as per 1980s-action-movie custom, is so off-handed and anti-climactic that it feels rushed and unsatisfactory.
Still, the new ROBOCOP almost entirely justifies its existence by placing Michael Keaton in scenes with Gary Oldman and Samuel L. Jackson, two of the most prolific screen presences of the past twenty years — it almost feels like playing catch-up, six-degrees style. Again, though, narratively speaking it’s a problem that the movie has no hissable villains to speak of, particularly when that was such a noticeable virtue of the Verhoeven original. Every last bad guy from 1987’s ROBOCOP has been dining out for years on how detestable they were in that movie, so great were they and how much attention casting directors paid. Conversely, the villains in the 2014 model barely register. There are no villains for wide swaths of the film. Some, like Keaton, don’t really reveal themselves as bad guys until the end (it’s obvious and you’re waiting for the confirmation but outside of some really weird artwork in his office it takes a while to get to it). Others, like Patrick Garrow as Antoine Vallon, have great villain faces but hardly do much worth despising on the audience’s part.
Also, while Joel Kinnaman is quite good as both Alex Murphy and RoboCop, he’s probably the least interesting actor in the movie. I’ve seen him in EASY MONEY, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, and SAFE HOUSE, and he was more formidable in any of those. Here, unless he’s meant to match the oddly glassy performance by Abbie Cornish as his wife (granted, her role is totally thankless), Kinnaman is adequate but underwhelming. Yes, he’s playing a robot man, but still, there are would-be emotional moments that should ring louder bells. He cries more than Peter Weller ever did, but it only serves to make you wonder where the tears are coming from, biologically speaking. And Kinnaman’s physicality in this film, lithe and skinny, somewhat reminiscent of Keir Dullea in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, makes him look sort of weird in the RoboCop suit, not always where it’s intended. The scene between Murphy and Dr. Norton, where Murphy gets his first full view of exactly how much (or how little) is left of his tangible humanity, is eerie more for its special effects than in the way it plays.
The new film makes an interesting choice to keep the Murphy family alive rather than to use their deaths as cause for vengeance, but that storyline doesn’t quite stir the heartstrings. As Murphy says to Lewis, “That ain’t my home now.” Ultimately, there was more pathos in 1987’s ROBOCOP, in the one brief scene where Peter Weller returns to the dilapidated Murphy house, contrasting his playback of happier times with the emptiness of the present, than there is in all the scenes in the new version where RoboCop tries to bond with his son. One can’t help but wonder, particularly since his character is injured by gunfire twice in the film, if a Michael K. Williams rendition of RoboCop may have been more rewarding.
The new ROBOCOP excels in most of the places you’d expect it to mess up the worst. The much-maligned new black suit actually has a story-based reason: The bad guy chooses the design. He thinks it looks cooler in black. So after early appearances in a variation on the familiar gray chrome design, this sleeker, darker new iteration spends most of the running time riding around on a motorcycle that looks a lot like him — actually, they both resemble the new Cadillac — and the glowy red visor provides some nifty visuals, in keeping with the flashing lights of a police cruiser. Think of it as the way the armor is treated in the IRON MAN movies — the blocky early design comes first, and constant tweaking by the characters leads to changes in RoboCop’s appearances. If it makes the purists feel any better, the final scenes return RoboCop, now free of negative influences, to his familar Detroit steel-gray look.
But if the film excels in unexpected ways, so does it disappoint. The first half of the story is far more politically and creatively engaged than the back half, which peters out somewhat generically. It’s unlikely that Padhila lost interest; a more probable scenario is that some of the other cooks in the kitchen saw to it that the edges were sanded off and watered down. A sizable amount of weight is centered around Norton’s work with Murphy in the suit, the creation of RoboCop and the process it takes to get the suit going. This is a stark contrast to the original film, which relatively speaking, speeds past those parts to get to the good stuff. Since the new ROBOCOP doesn’t have any colorful villains with whom to even the score, there’s more time spent on what would probably be better kept to first-act business.
This movie focuses on the most serious parts of the story, so much that it dilutes its efficacy. Nobody listens too closely to the overly-serious guy — the trick is to be funny enough to get people to listen to your big ideas, whether or not they even notice it. ROBOCOP 2014 is the overly serious guy. Personally I appreciate the fact that it at least looks sideways at some big ideas, because that’s way more than we get with most movies of this size these days. I only wish it weren’t quite so somber. Jackie Earle Haley and Jay Baruchel get to squeak a bit of humor in there, but the movie treats it like a fart at a funeral. Ultimately, ROBOCOP 2014 has a similar relationship to its still-lively ancestor that a movie like LET ME IN, the 2010 remake of an instant classic, 2008’s LET THE RIGHT ONE IN. It’s good, good enough to take seriously, good enough to be worth seeing and thinking about and arguing over, good enough to silence the doubters and the haters, but not good enough to rank with the original film. It’s still standing on the icy mountain bluff, looking up at the peak.
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Tags: Abbie Cornish, Action Film, Edward Neumeier, gary oldman, Guns, Jackie Earle Haley, Jay Baruchel, Jennifer Ehle, Joel Kinnaman, José Padilha, Joshua Zetumer, Megaviolence, Michael K. Williams, Michael Keaton, Michael Miner, Motorcycles, Paul Verhoeven, Peter Weller, remakes, Robots, Samuel L. Jackson, Sci-Fi