If you're a male of a certain age, the idea of remaking "RoboCop" is very nearly unfathomable.
The movie was a deeply personal one that showed a lot of us what the possibilities of action filmmaking really were (along with "Die Hard," released a year later); at once totally of its time and utterly timeless. And yet, a remake is exactly what we're getting this week, with MGM and Sony's big-screen overhaul of "RoboCop."
This new story features some familiar elements, mostly having to do with a street smart Detroit cop (this time played by Swedish actor Joel Kinnaman from TV's "The Killing"), who is horribly injured in the line of duty but brought back to life (sort of) using cutting-edge technology. He might be mostly machine now, but the existential questions of humanity and the soul still remain, buried within his hardwired programming.
Before the movie, a colleague casually referred to the original film as the "real" "RoboCop," implying that this new one was a fake or a crass imitator. But could the new "RoboCop" be something more than we're led to believe? Could it be (gulp) its own beautiful machine? Read on to find out.
1. It's Not the Original 'RoboCop'
This is not the original "RoboCop." It's not rated R, which will undoubtedly rattle some cages (more on that in a minute), and it's not quite as toothsome or nasty. The original was made in the '80s, at the height of the Reagan/Thatcher era, and it's still very much a product of its time. This new "RoboCop" has to serve a different set of purposes, for a different political regime (and climate), and you know what? It succeeds on its own. The movie is an absolute blast. As an old girlfriend once informed me before making my inaugural trip to Europe: just because it's different doesn't mean it's bad.
2. That Said, This One Is Pretty Political
One of the aspects that I was not expecting to be maintained is the amount of edgy political satire. The original film was exemplified by its lefty politics and open condemnation of the consumerist Reagan '80s. This "RoboCop" begins with a Bill O'Reilly-style conservative talk show host (played, brilliantly, by Samuel L. Jackson) working the masses into a fury over the implementation of robots overseas. He wants to see these mechanical peacekeepers on the streets of America, even when a squadron of suicide bombers proves how easy it is to disarm these automatons. And it's not just drone warfare that gets the once over -- the threat of privacy invasion, the reliance on goods made overseas (RoboCop is constructed in China in this one), and the way that corporations easily influence political legislation are all tackled, and tackled brilliantly, often hilariously. Well done, new "RoboCop."
3. It's Also Insanely Violent
Also, just because it's rated PG-13 doesn't mean that it's not insanely violent because, well, it is. RoboCop shoots a lot of people. Just because you don't see the splatter in a wonderfully wet squib hit doesn't mean that it didn't happen. In a way, the fact that the movie is rated PG-13 and therefore more easily marketed and sold towards a younger audience, makes it even more insidiously clever. Just like those of us who watched the original "RoboCop" as kids (probably without our parents permission) weren't absorbing the underlying social and political messages, so too will kids watch this movie and think it's about a guy in a cool suit gunning down robots, when deep down, there's a whole lot more going on.
4. There's More Emphasis on the Man Inside the Machine
In the original "RoboCop," Alex Murphy (played by Peter Weller) was just some cop. He started to dream after he had become an android crime fighter, and since the monolithic company OCP had already purchased the Detroit Police, there was no attempt to reconnect his robotic self with his human wife and son. (It also seems that he was kind of a jerk and his wife had left him.) Here, we watch as Murphy painfully undergoes the process and struggles with trying to stay connected with his wife and child. And while we were initially skeptical of this emphasis on the character's humanity, it ends up paying off in dividends. This is an action movie where the biggest battle takes place inside the main character.
5. Jose Padilha Directs the Hell Out of It
Brazilian director Jose Padilha is best known for a pair of "Elite Squad" movies -- hard-hitting crime dramas set inside Rio's correct police force. Those movies are amazing, with the kind of vibrancy and immediacy and heart-breaking tragedy largely missing from American action movies. But it's always something of an iffy proposition to bring a foreign director stateside, but just as European art house maestro Paul Verhoeven made the original "RoboCop" all his own, so too does Padilha press his own stamp upon "RoboCop." While the "Elite Squad" movies were easily characterized by their shaky, handheld camera work and quick cutting, Padilha adopts a more fluid style here, including several shots that are long and languid (and sometimes computer-assisted). When he needs to ramp up the intensity, he does. And it's truly exciting stuff. It's nothing short of miraculous -- a big budget action movie with personality.
6. Joel Kinnaman Is Officially a Movie Star
While Kinnaman is great on "The Killing" (and he appeared briefly in David Fincher's "Girl With the Dragon Tattoo"), it's here that he really shines. His Murphy/RoboCop is a tragic figure, full of self-loathing and dread. When he asks to be killed as soon as he's created, it's a profound moment, and Kinnaman peppers the rest of the movie with these little moments of brilliant performance, even when he's largely restricted by prosthetics and cumbersome mechanics. It's also amazing that he's just as willowy as Peter Weller was in the original; an everyman who becomes truly super.
7. The Supporting Cast Is an Embarrassment of Riches
Every time a new actor would pop up in "RoboCop," I'd kind of jump out of my chair: Michael K. Williams is Murphy's partner, Gary Oldman is the scientist responsible for his technology (at what cost?), Michael Keaton is the evil head of OmniCorp (he plays it like a malevolent Steve Jobs), Jackie Earle Haley plays the loathsome weapons man, Abbie Cornish is Murphy's adorable wife, Jennifer Ehle is OmniCorp's lawyer, Jay Baruchel is OmniCorp's slick marketing guy and Douglas Urbanski plays the mayor of Detroit. Does it get any better? In a word: no.
8. There Are Some Nerdy Shout-Outs to the Original
Can't spoil everything here, but keep your eyes and ears open, ya nerds.
9. It Could Have Used an Iconic Score
The score, by regular Padilha confederate Pedro Bromfman, is pretty weak. It fits in well with the movie's amazing sound design but it also is bland and repetitive, and there are a couple of times when the movie wedges in the iconic theme music by Basil Poledouris. It's meant to evoke feelings of nostalgia and warmth towards the original, but what it really does is point out how much lousier this score is than the first one. It's a shame, too, because so much of this new "RoboCop" feels iconic on its own. It deserved an iconic score.
10. Sadly, in the Future, the Gender Lines Remain Intact
One of the more annoying aspects of this new movie is how Murphy's partner has gone from being a tough woman cop (played by a bubblegum-chewing Nancy Allen) to being a dude. Additionally, the future as imagined by Verhoeven and his confederates was one in which gender lines weren't just blurred -- they didn't exist at all. There was a sequence in the original where both men and women change in the same locker room, something that Verhoeven was able to expand on in his equally brilliant "Starship Troopers." This new "RoboCop" passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors, there are a lot of women all over the movie -- in positions of power and as wonderful, doting wives. But the gender lines that separate us now seem to still be strictly enforced in this future world. And that's kind of a bummer.