Review: ‘Robocop’ is a perfectly decent but mechanical remake

Over the last few weeks, I’ve noticed a number of people start to hammer the drum that the 1987 film “Robocop” wasn’t actually that good, and those of us who hold it dear as an example of how good filmed science-fiction can be are overinflating its reputation.

Hogwash. Balderdash. Nonsense and tomfoolery.

When the first film was released, I was a theater manager in Florida, and I can tell you that for almost six months before the film came out, that poster was a punchline to all of us who worked at the theater. I knew Paul Verhoeven’s foreign films, and it looked to me like Hollywood had wooed him and then stuck him with a dog. The tagline for the film, “Part Man, Part Machine, All Cop,” made me laugh, and not in a good way. Even the image on the poster, of Robocop half in and half out of the car, looked to me like an obnoxious cheapo piece of junk.

Then about four days before the film came out, the print showed up. I built it early and we screened it for a handful of employees, and by the time the film was over, I realized just how wrong I’d been. Verhoeven not only gave the film a real soul, but he took the script by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner and expertly coaxed out every jet black laugh, allowing the cynicism of the text to work against the uber-square tone of Peter Weller’s Robocop characterization. The film was impeccably cast, and between Miguel Ferrer, Ronny Cox, and Kurtwood Smith, it had an irresistible rogue’s gallery, smarmy and vile and genuinely dangerous.

Don’t even get me started on Rob Bottin’s amazing make-up effects. The film pushed the envelope in terms of violence and brutality, and it made the movie feel out of control. Considering how violent action films were in the ’80s, it took the excess of “Robocop” to make it feel shocking, and Verhoeven pushed things so far they went past horrifying and came back around to hilarious again.

On the surface, Jose Padilha seems like a very smart choice to update “Robocop” to 2014. After all, both of his “Elite Squad” films feature nerve-jangling action, and they both carry a fairly potent political punch seen in the context of what’s been going on in Brazil in recent years. I was worried when I read an early 2012 draft of the film by Joshua Zetumer and Nick Schenk. It was way too caught up in reacting to the original film and far less effective at saying something fresh or interesting with the material. It seemed to have major tonal issues, not sure if it was aiming for sincerity or satire.

The finished film has some of the same issues, but it works better than I would have guessed possible. Padilha seems to want to score some big satirical points off of our fear-driven media, but it’s such an obvious target and it’s done in such a ham-handed way that I’d say the satire is the least potent part of the movie. When the film gets down to simply telling a science-fiction action story, it’s not bad. In particular, Joel Kinnaman does a solid job of articulating the struggle that Alex Murphy faces in trying to come to terms with his own nature after he is almost completely rebuilt by Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) and his team.

The film’s other greatest weakness is that there are no villains of any note in the movie. Patrick Garrow plays Antoine Vallon, the criminal gang lord who is behind the bombing attack that nearly kills Murphy in the first place, and he is such a thinly drawn character that when he does have his eventual showdown with Murphy, surrounded by his henchmen, it’s utterly forgettable. He’s a non-threat, an easily dispatched generic boss, and the film seems as uninterested in him as the audience will be.

The real villain, of course, is the head of Omnicorp, the company that designs Robocop, and the main thrust of the film is that Omnicorp wants to replace working police officers with robots on the streets of America, but they need to convince America to allow that to happen. Robocop is a PR tool, designed to give a human face to Omnicorp’s product line, and Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) will do anything he has to do to get Congress to lift a legal ban on the use of robots on American soil. This allows the film to grapple with the idea of how corporate donors and political figures use branches of the media to sell a message they want sold, regardless of truth, with Samuel L. Jackson playing Pat Novak, the host of a Bill O’Reilly-like TV show.

My biggest problem with the Novak stuff is that it just doesn’t feel like a real TV show. If you’re going to effectively satirize this stuff, you have to get it right. The film seems more interested in trying to crank up the emotional side of things, giving more face time to Murphy’s wife Clara (Abbie Cornish) and son David (John Paul Ruttan), but they don’t really know what to do with Clara as a character. She cries a few times, she looks very serious and upset, but that’s about it. Even in the film’s big final sequence, they stand around as window dressing.

For a PG-13, the film is surprisingly violent. Sure, they don’t spill blood in the same sort of volume as the 1987 film, but in some ways, that bothers me more. Verhoeven knew that when he pushed the graphic violence to such extremes, he almost made it ludicrous. But when your film solves every single dramatic issue by shooting and killing people, that’s still sending just as violent a message, but it sanitizes it, makes it more like a video game. I find it offensive when studios play the game to try and sneak something this violent past the ratings board simply by eliminating blood, and the MPAA, which loves to talk about how their system is designed for parents, are absolutely at fault here. If anything, a film like this seems more irresponsible because of how numb it is to the actual impact of violence.

The film is at its best when it simply focuses on what Murphy is living through, and there are some great ideas buried here about the nature of what he is as part man and part machine. How much free will does someone have once a certain amount of them has been replaced with systems that are controlled by programming? When Murphy is shown what he looks like with all the Robocop systems removed, it’s a ghastly image, and Kinnaman plays the full weight of the reveal.

Michael K. Williams, beloved as Omar on “The Wire,” is wasted completely as Lewis, Murphy’s partner, and some very strong actors like Jackie Earle Haley, Jennifer Ehle, and Jay Baruchell wrestle to make their characters register. Lula Carvalho’s cinematography is sleek and striking, and Pedro Bromfman gets a lot of mileage out of the original Basil Pouledouris score, and tech credits across the board are fairly strong. “Robocop” is not a bad movie, but it’s a half-baked one, and more than anything, I was left asking the same question afterwards that I had before, one that I still can’t really answer for myself: why?

“Robocop” opens everywhere tomorrow.