You can tell RoboCop made by someone who understands how to make an action movie – the editing is superb and the camerawork both muscular and dextrous. Outside of Samuel L. Jackson’s tabloid television host, Pat Novak, there’s almost none of the demented genius of the original – though there are more than a few homages to it.
The setup finds Detectives Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) and Jack Lewis (Michael K. Williams) shake down a low-level arms dealer to get a lead on Big Bad Antoine Vallon (Patrick Garrow). Unfortunately, Vallon is tipped off and the two cops run into a barrage, with Lewis being terribly wounded. This is juxtaposed with Pat Novak ranting about the use of robot security being outlawed in America while it’s bringing peace and security to ‘beautiful Tehran.’
When Murphy returns to his precinct, he gets a dressing down from his boss, Captain Karen Dean (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) – in spite of evidence suggesting that the guns were supplied from the precinct’s evidence room. Later that evening, after putting his son, David (John Paul Ruttan) to bed and in the middle of getting frisky with his wife, Clara (Abbie Cornish), his car alarm goes off. When his remote fails to shut it off, he goes outside, opens the door and BOOM!
Meanwhile, Omnicorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) is trying to find a way to bring his company’s robotic security forces to bear on American crime when the attack on Murphy plays into an idea he’s decided on trying – putting a man inside a machine.
Most of the first half of Robocop is the set up and Murphy learning to deal with what he’s become. The lead on the project that creates RoboCop, Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) is the classic scientist whose work is suborned for uses he never wanted. He and his associate Jae Kim (Aimee Garcia) are the ones who have to deal with mechanics and ethics of turning Murphy into RoboCop while Sellars uses their work for one reason – to make money.
Jackie Earle Haley plays a significant role as Rick Mattox, an arrogant little mercenary who is in charge of okaying RoboCop for duty. He’s a nasty piece of work but Haley makes him likable enough that by the time the movie ends, we find ourselves wondering why.
Where the original used Murphy’s parter, Lewis (Nancy Alley) to bring the film’s humanity to the fore, the new version looks to Clara and David to that end – though the underwritten roles mean that Cornish and Ruttan have to push through mostly on force of performance.
As you might expect, RoboCop’s action and effects are pretty fine (they hold up in IMAX) and show that director José Padilha’s two Elite Squad movies were not a fluke. While the film may not have the overall demented genius of Paul Verhoeven’s original, there are moments that come close – witness the training/test sequence set to Focus’ left field hit, Hocus Pocus, or the use of Black Sabbath’s War Pigs.
Kinnaman brings something more than brooding and menace to RoboCop – he’s a better actor than Peter Weller, or at least, excels within a larger range, and adds depth to Murphy as he progresses from loving family man and good cop through the trauma of discovering what he’s become and, finally to accepting his new being so well that he becomes a potential danger to his creators.
Keaton is super as Sellars. Ably assisted by his crack PR flak, Tom Pope (Jay Baruchel) and head of legal, Liz Kline (Jennifer Ehle), he comes across as quick-witted and morally ambiguous (appropriately). There’s definitely a bit of sales man in his past – though it’s likely it was more Rolls-Royce than used car.
The conclusion of the film isn’t quite as simple as the ‘You’re fired!’ that led to Ronnie Cox’s memorable demise in the original, but it gets the job done – and echoes a classic line from the original.
On the Big Drink Scale, RoboCop doesn’t quite measure up. My drink ran dry just before the final showdown, so I can’t give RoboCop my most wholehearted, enthusiastic response. It’s better than I expected but not nearly as good as it could have been. Chalk it up as an ambitious, entertaining near miss.
Final Grade: B
Photos by Kerry Hayes/Courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment