Released in 1987, Robocop holds a special spot in the pantheon of 80’s action movies for anyone who has seen it (and its various lesser sequels and spin-offs). Written by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner (by far the best script either has done), director Paul Verhoeven‘s satirical, violent, and over-the-top tale of a critically wounded Detroit police officer turned into the first cybernetic soldier by an ominous corporation with its own agenda gets an obligatory, and completely unnecessary, remake. Thankfully this one fares better than the last Verhoeven film Hollywood decided to remake.
Missing the original’s biting wit (none of those terrific commercials this time around) or primal sense of justice and revenge, and substituting a PG-13 gruesomeness for the original’s R-rated violence (meaning we get a much smaller body count but several shots of scientists poking around inside of the still-human pieces of our hero), the new film makes several interesting choices that allow the story to take a slightly different path than the original.
The motives of the original Robocop are pretty straightforward with heroes and villains all easily classified into white and black hats. The plot threads here are a little nebulous and complicated as this version of Alex Muprhy (Joel Kinnaman) remembers who he is and his relationship with his son (John Paul Ruttan) and wife (Abbie Cornish) who signs-off on the unusual life-saving procedure.
In the original film Robocop slowly unravels the mystery of Alex Murphy to rediscover his identity and eventually his humanity. Here, Murphy knows and understands his past from first waking up as a cybernetic organism. Struggling early on with what has been done to him, the new Robocop has his humanity slowly stripped from him by the project’s head scientist (Gary Oldman) under pressure from his bosses to curtail Robocop’s human impulses which they feel are getting in the way of maximizing his effectiveness as both a police officer and, more importantly, a marketing ploy.
Lacking the gleeful villany of Dick Jones (Ronny Cox) and Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith) the film instead settles on the unscrupulous CEO of Omnicorp Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) who uses Robocop to push through legislation to allow the company to sell their drones and ED-209 robotic soldiers into domestic service. We also get Jackie Earle Haley as Sellars’ mercenary henchman, Samuel L. Jackson as a talking head pushing a Conservative Agenda who would be right at home on FOX News, and Patrick Garrow as the head of the criminals responsible for Murphy’s injuries.
Garrow’s character is a major issue, and not only because he lacks the unique charms of Kurtwood Smith’s character. In the original Murphy was blown apart in a brutal, and highly personal, attack which stays with him even after his memory wipe and must be avenged. This time around our hero is hit with an impersonal car bomb left by a nameless recruit that isn’t even detonated when it could do Murphy the most damage (like when he’s driving the car).
Although the new script by Joshua Zetumer has more emotional layers than the original given the screentime of the Murphy family this time around, it lacks both the smarts and visceral nature of Verhoeven’s film. Despite the different paths each movie takes, both end with our hero at OCP pointing a gun at high-ranking member of the company who has tried to kill him. In the 1987 movie it’s a nice “Hell Yeah!” moment as Murphy gets justice for what was done to him. Here it’s an anticlimactic sequence (whose logic is more than a little circumspect, something this version struggles with on multiple occasions).
I’ll give credit to the screenwriter and director José Padilha for finding a different kind of story to tell rather than simply try and remake the 1987 film. It may not compare to the original, and the all-black version of Robocop looks like an awkward humanized K.I.T.T. walking around, but taken on its own it works far better than the clusterfuck I was expecting. The PG-13 rating doesn’t help (as Robocop is more often tazing suspects than blowing them away), Jackson’s character is overused, and the story eventually runs out of gas, but there’s still quite a bit to enjoy watching Murphy struggle with his new circumstances while doing his best to protect and serve.