(SPOILERS) How long before you can buy the Robocop remake for a dollar from bargain bins? Not very, I’d hazard a guess (if anyone watching it will even bother buying it, at this stage in the rise of the download world). Its greatest virtue is that it isn’t terrible, but stating that it’s superior to that other recent Paul Verhoeven remake (Total Recall) is merely damning Robocop 2014 with faint praise.
None of the signs were promising, from the reveal of the suit onwards. It’s a graceless design, Street Hawk with the de rigueur Batman pectoral ribbing. But a sharp story, adeptly told will forgive a thousand design flaws. The original movie is an unsurpassable classic (in that respect, the Total Recall reboot didn’t have its work quite so cut out for it), not only for the savagely satirical script but also the muscular dynamism Verhoeven brought to action. Once he was saddled with an impossible suit he worked out just how to shoot it to make it iconic. And he told his tale in a tight, linear manner. Robocop 2014 is 20 minutes longer than the original, but it feels significantly baggier. It’s also fundamentally skewered by the lack of focus the luxury of expansion brings.
The trajectory of the Robocop 1987 was so clear, so crisp, there was insufficient time to reflect on how almost as soon as he came into being Omnicorp decided to junk him. Here, the increased background information serves only to raise questions about the logic of the entire scenario. Part of the problem is that, with a legacy to play with, screenwriter Joshua Zetumer has brought ingredients from outside of the original (notably the second movie). Instead of a story about robot (cyborg) regaining his humanity, cop Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) awakes with his consciousness fully enabled and then has it dampened. While this decision has its virtues, most notably in producing the strongest and most affecting scenes in the picture, it shunts everything in a stop-start sideways direction. There’s a much longer lead-in before Murphy is blown up by a car bomb. By the time Muprhy’s emotional centres are shutdown to ensure he conveniently rehearses some of the action antics of original Robocop it’s clear the makers of this film have gone into reverse and fatally upset what they have got that’s fresh. By not having the courage of their convictions they satisfy no one.
The fun of the first film is in part down to Verhoeven’s flirtation with and commentary on the fascist impulses behind his super cop. Robocop arrives and he does lots of cool stuff; Dirty Harry-style we see him take down a series of perps in a montage of arrests. Director José Padilha approaches his take so literally that he leaves his central character looking rather silly (not just because his costume is rather silly). When Padilha style is all handheld and choppy cutting; fine for a down and dirty depiction of urban warfare, but seriously undercutting any physical impact the character might have. If he’s not interested in such things (as the more philosophical early stages suggest) that’s fair enough, but he’s stuck playing against a mismatched script. Time and again, Murphy’s cop duties play out in a muddled and murky fashion. An attack on the villain’s drug lab takes place in darkness (remember the first film’s corresponding scene?) Robocop’s encounter with the Clarence Bodicker equivalent (Patrick Garrow), the man who put him where he is, is almost perversely under-emphasised.
Since the script follows many of the same key set pieces as the original, but with slight variations, comparisons are impossible to avoid. So Michael K Williams’ Lewis is left to kill another nemesis, Jackie Earle Haley’s Maddox. Which further emphasising Murphy’s impotence. Maddox is really nasty, because he keeps calling Murphy a robot and a tin man. Robocop needs rescuing from the ED 209s too, and his climactic encounter with Michael Keaton’s Raymond Sellars has no sense of catharsis or triumph (if nothing else, we at least get to see a couple of moments where Keaten cuts loose, a manic ball of energy that makes the prospect of a Beetlejuice 2 considerably more appealing than it otherwise might be). This Murphy is placed in a nightmare situation but Padilha doesn’t even have the decency to allow him any kind of victory over it. There are too many villains with too little personas, so it’s no surprise some of them end up half forgotten. Marianne Jean-Baptiste’s Chief Dean’s involvement just peters out; it’s lucky she turns out to be a baddie, because she kept turning up at OCP out-of-the-blue (actually, her presence there still doesn’t make much sense as she wasn’t in league with them).
The original may have dealt in caricatures, but they were entirely memorable caricatures. No one here passes muster. Lewis is consigned (as unfortunately most of Williams’ big screen roles seem to be) to a couple of scenes; there’s no real sense of the relationship that existed between Peter Weller and Nancy Allen. Abbie Cornish’s Clara Murphy gets more screen time than Angie Bolling did, but no one knows what to do with her after the first reel. They certainly don’t give her any hard choices to make, having set up a scenario that should be teeming with them. Instead she frets a lot and turns up out of the blue in the middle of a street to plead with Alex while some tinkly music lets you know its supposed to be heart-rending.
Unfortunately, it’s merely clumsy. Like the corrupt cops who show up to conspire nefariously in a TV interview, reeking of bad dialogue. Padhila wants grit, but much of what we see has a $100m sheen, not matter how much he shakes his camera. It’s the reverse of Verhoeven, who made a little go a long way with convincingly grimy locations but a very clear staging and compositions. He also dealt in broad strokes, which meant he was tonally consistent even when dealing with the emotional core of Murphy’s situation.
More time than most is spent with Gary Oldman’s Doctor Norton, but his turns of motivation are in service to the needs of plot rather than character. He’s intended to be largely sympathetic, but he gets morally superior at the wrong moments. When he announces that he has rendered Murphy as merely a robot during conflict scenarios, it’s Jennifer Ehle’s Kline (surprise, she’s under-used too) who points out his lack of ethics.
In its bid to be different, Robocop 2014 ends up indifferent. Verhoeven had it out savagely for the corporations and the mercilessly shredded a society built on capitalism (it came out the same year as Wall Street). While this Omnicorp serves the almighty dollar, Padilha is conflicted and unwilling to express a clear position. Perhaps he’s just confused. OCP does do good too you know. One might argue the worst tycoons are never overt villains either (but the first head of OCP, the “Old Man”, wasn’t either until the sequel), but when the needs of the plot require Sellars to shift gears into outright maliciousness it forsakes any such notion and rather begins to look like it had no real thoughts in its head to begin with. When Robocop reaches the final scene, and the picture has just ended, the pervading feeling is one of anti-climax. And that’s probably because the movie hasn’t been building towards anything. We leave with a shrug, because by that point, if they ever did, director and writer have lost the thread of whatever they were trying to say.
The satirical element is bereft of wit or sparkle. Samuel L Jackson’s Pat Novak gets maybe the funniest, strangest, moment in the movie, going through his warm-up exercises over the MGM lion logo, but his targets are so in-your-face there’s no point trying to pretend there’s anything clever going on here. It’s clearly a call out to the news bulletins of the original (also seen in Starship Troopers) but it’s mostly leaden. And jokes about robophobia, Doctor Who’s The Robots of Death aside, were funny the first couple of times Futurama did them.
There’s an attempt to be topical with the drones element, but it’s dumped there; introduced in the first scene and then left dangling. The all important drones bill is referenced throughout, but the street scenes in Tehran suggest a pay off that never comes. Like everything else, Murphy never really has worthy opponents; perhaps if we’d seen drones going awry on the streets of America (and the OCP robots don’t go awry, even if they kill a wee nipper) there’d be some conflict to root for. The moment where Murphy arrests a 60 year old man is about the only clever scene in the picture in this regard, as it effectively plays against supercop fascism; Murphy shows what a bad motherfucker he is by threatening someone who has little propensity for misdeeds left in him. It’s satire for morons. (Speaking of swearing, this is a movie that goes so low as to fish for laughs from Jackson bleeped-out expletives.)
Padilha directs competently, but with little real attitude or flair. He’s not delivering a big studio movie that is thematically dead, but he’s still beholden to someone else’s studio-approved plot. His coups come early. If blowing up Murphy rather than torturing him shears the character of motivation for revenge (almost every choice here undercuts dramatic potential), the awakening as a man trapped in a metal shell holds genuine horror, more palpable than any grue you may see in the 18 certificate original (this is only a 12) and an indication that censors are incredibly unnuanced in how they judge material. When Murphy runs amok, breaking out of the research facility and leaping the walls, it’s a bracing scene, and promises much more than the rest of the picture can deliver. It also delivers one of the most indelible shots, as Murphy lies prone in a paddy field (the location itself is a surprise), the camera hovering overhead.
But it’s the follow-up, as we see Alex shorn of a body except for his lungs and part of his spinal column, which is most devastating. There’s an enormous emotional impact here but, because Padilha wants to go further than Verhoeven did with symbolism (Murphy smashing in the video in his for sale house, his wife having moved on with her life, his shooting jars of babyfood), he’s left unable to follow through with his ideas. Murphy holds out to get back to his wife, but there’s no physicality or warmth possible. And because this is a 12 there’s no broaching of the fact that his options for a fulfilling marriage have gone the way of his lower torso. Again, the need here to subscribe to the template of the original overrides the writer’s ability to make good on the alterations; persuading Clara to sign him over, persuading Alex to carry on because his wife would want it. Zetumer doesn’t have the skill to make these scenes work.
As far as the lack of gratuitous violence is concerned, it’s not a be all and end all except in as much as the entire premise of Robocop is an extreme one; after the initial trauma everything the content is diluted, apart from the bits that are made blunderingly obvious (Pat Novak). Murphy tazering bad guys is just dull. Padilha repeatedly makes weird song choices on the soundtrack, as if he wishes to divorce the viewer from the dramatic potential of the scene. If a skewering was intended in terms of celebrating the violence Murphy inflicts (or has the facility for) it fails because he isn’t really inflicting very much, except in simulations or against robots.
On the plus side, there’s little in the way of lazy referencing of the first. Using a similar suit at first only announces how much better it was (still a shit redesigned visor, though), but then they use the chunky suit sounds throughout even though this one is all about stealth and sleekness. Kinnaman (who is very good, but doesn’t have the subtle responsiveness of Weller) looks kind of goofy in his black number, but that’s no great surprise. Using the Pouledoris score at moments, in a watered down form, is a poor move, as it only evokes how sonically appropriate it was.
This is still the second best Robocop movie, but that’s because the other two are pretty lousy. Outside of Highlander (which was no classic to begin with), no franchise has pissed itself away like this. But then, as this picture has discovered, where do you go with the story? After facing existential issues at the outset, Robocop 2014 ducks them or thinks mentioning the soul counts as heavyweight philosophical manoeuvring. This is a story with a great idea, rather than one that is ripe for continuation. Murphy can’t really grow or move on; he can only protect and serve and shoot at shit. Expose the deeply disturbing heart of the idea, and there’s little you can do with it afterwards that that doesn’t look like a massive cop out. Robocop 2014 isn’t as free of personality as the Total Recall remake, but it has a similar lack of boldness and vision. Production values and CGI can only mask so much, and increasingly little as the hollow centre grows. Everything here – design, cast, staging, rewriting, scoring – is functional and unexceptional. There’s a great movie to be made about the inescapable nightmare Murphy awakes to during the opening third of the movie, but it’s not going to be a Robocop movie.