You don’t have to love Paul Verhoeven’s wickedly satirical and extravagantly violent 1987 original to be left lukewarm by the new “RoboCop” remake. Despite some half-hearted stabs at a big idea or two — is the title character a cyborg or merely a machine that thinks he’s a man? — we’re left with a competent but not very exciting movie about mechanized warfare and corporate irresponsibility.
When “RoboCop” raises the notion that the armor-plated law enforcer is merely a robot that thinks it’s Detroit police officer Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman of TV’s “The Killing”), I was reminded briefly of writer Alan Moore’s acclaimed run with DC Comics’ Swamp Thing character, in which he determined the slimy hero wasn’t Dr. Alec Holland but merely a plant that had absorbed his memories.
And in those moments where this new “RoboCop” seemed to be striking out in its own interesting directions, forced by a PG-13 rating to explore other avenues than Verhoeven’s bloody saga, I thought the way to consider this movie was less as a remake than as the equivalent of DC’s multiple Earths, where on one planet, Green Lantern is a magic-powered hero whose powers don’t work on wood, and on another, he’s a member of an intergalactic police corps who’s helpless against the color yellow.
Had director José Padilha (“Elite Squad”), working from Joshua Zetumer’s retooling of Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner’s original screenplay, made an action movie that stood on its own two feet, then it would be easier to evaluate on its own, independent of its source material. But this new “RoboCop” is plagued with such underwritten characters and logy pacing that it’s a letdown no matter how you slice it.
It’s a tale with a Greek chorus, in this case Samuel L. Jackson playing cable-news pundit Pat Novak, who appears on screen throughout to make the case for the powerful Omnicorp company’s robotic peace-keepers — which we see stopping and frisking the citizens of Teheran — home to the U.S. to clean up our crime-ridden cities. Public opinion is against the idea, since Senator Dreyfus (Zach Grenier, and you can tell he’s playing a liberal because he’s always wearing a bowtie) thinks that the life-and-death choices of the police should be left in the hands of flesh-and-blood people.
That’s not satisfactory for CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), who leans on scientist Dr. Norton (Gary Oldman) to create a part-human, part-robot law enforcer so that Omnicorp can cash in on the domestic market. Norton gets an ideal candidate in Murphy, who nearly dies in an explosion set by a crime kingpin who’s got connections deep within the police department.
The mechanized Murphy is good, but Omnicorp’s actual robots are better; under pressure from Sellars, Norton tinkers with Murphy’s mind to make him more machine than man. But when Murphy returns to Detroit and has to revisit his own murder scene — not to mention his loving wife (Abbie Cornish) and son (John Paul Ruttan) — it may turn out that there’s still a soul locked inside the machine.
Given how much Murphy’s humanity is a key to the story, it would help if we had some idea of who this guy is, apart from a clean cop who’s a devoted husband and father. Kinnaman and Cornish get stuck playing such non-entities that the villains handily walk off with the film.
I began perking up every time two smarmy Omnicorp execs played by Jennifer Ehle (oh, if only she’d gotten to play the Keaton role) and Jay Baruchel turned up on screen; Ehle brings a purring malice to every line, even when she’s speaking in press release.
Oldman is engaging enough, and Padilha at least bothers to make the movie’s many shoot-outs look different from each other, either by changing perspective among different robotic combatants or staging one via night-vision in a pitch-black warehouse. At nearly a full two hours, however, this new “RoboCop” tests the patience and never really justifies its own existence.
“RoboCop” avoids being a bad remake by giving the original wide berth, but all we’re left with this time around is a cop who becomes a robot without being particularly interesting in either incarnation.