A reboot of a classic movie gets farted into theaters the week of Valentine’s Day - and it’s not terrible. That’s almost as impressive as actually building a real, living Robocop.
It’s the not too distant future (next Sunday A.D.) and OmniCorp is at the heart of robot technology. Their drones are stationed globally and their military contracts have meant billions in revenue. They want to bring their tech home, but drones are banned on U.S. soil. OmniCorp believes the best way to get the law repealed is to sway the ever-valuable public opinion with a part man, part machine supercop: The perfect law enforcement agent and a hero the public can cling to. As luck would have it, generic “family man who’s a good cop in a corrupt city” Alex Murphy gets blown the fuck up in a car bomb. Shenanigans aplenty ensue, he tracks down the people who did it, there’s dirty cops and crooked business men, and some robots. Oh, and some moral dilemmas about drone warfare, a Big Brother society where everyone lives under constant fear and surveillance from a faceless entity, the erosion of humanity, and the illusion of free will.
This was way better than I thought it would be. It’s a reboot of a classic movie pushed back and back and back and then finally dumped into mid February, the home of countless fantastic movies. Even that piece of shit Total Recall reboot got a summer release. I guess it helps when you go in with the lowest of expectations, but when you go in with the mindset that this isn’t Verhoeven’s 1987 classic and think to yourself “PG-13 Cinema Graveyard action movie” you have nowhere to go but up. So seriously, just get expectations from the original out of your head.
This isn’t satire. It’s not uberviolence. It’s not dark comedy. It’s not pulpy. It’s a serious character study and the action is secondary. It’s a character driven movie and focuses on the arc of Alex Murphy and his relationship with his family, not on Robocop getting revenge. They both follow the same very basic plot (Alex Murphy is super cool guy, “dies,” put in Robocop suit, gets revenge), but nobody gets covered in toxic waste and run over by Red Foreman. I’m gonna make some references to the original, but only because it’s impossible to ignore it. This should absolutely be treated as its own entity, but you can’t just pretend the original doesn’t exist. You do that with Robocop 3.
This review is largely going to be focused on the characters, because I don't know about you Constant Reader, but I can enjoy just about anything if I go into it with the proper mindset. I'm focusing almost exclusively on characters because that's what the movie does, and if I just posted about Robocop breaking into OmniCorp and a giant CGI battle with ED 209's and you turned it on and got 20 minutes of Alex Murphy with his wife and kid before the car bomb even goes off, you'd be fucking pissed. Basically what I'm saying is, if you get bored reading this, you're not gonna like the movie. Or I'm just a shitty writer. Or both.
There's minor spoilers ahead but it's fucking Robocop, you're going to figure out every plot point a scene before they happen.
Our hero is Alex Murphy, played by Joel Kinnaman. He kinda sucks. Well, in the beginning, at least. In the first fifteen minutes I’m watching him and all I can think is "THIS is who they went with? Fuck me." They asked anyone and everyone to play this role and they ended up with a guy whose performance is robotic before he’s ever put in the suit. I was getting a little mad at myself. I was thinking God dammit, this had just come out on Blu Ray and it was on sale for 12 bucks. I've heard decent things about it and shit, how long is it gonna be before I can find it that cheap again? Might as well, nothing else is out anyways. And then he’s mumbling through his lines in a monotonous tone and I’m thinking I’ve made a huge mistake. I should've bought the Asylum knockoff instead, at least that has Michael Jai White.
But it all changes in one scene, and if you’ve seen the movie you know exactly what scene it is: when he sees what’s left of him after he's placed in the suit. Long story short, instead of dying like in the original he’s car bombed and survives with fourth degree burns (is that even a thing?) all over his body. He's the prime candidate for OmniCorp's procedure and his wife volunteers him in order to save at least some part of him. It may seem like a cop out that he didn't die, but remember they have to maintain the fact that it's a human being in that suit, not a corpse with a computer chip in his head.
Alex freaks out and runs off after waking up and gets remotely shut down. When he reawakens he asks Dr. Norton (Gary Oldman) to show him what's left of him. And he shows him..
Holy. Shit. This scene right here is what sets it apart from the original. They don’t boot him up and next thing you know he’s out on the streets stopping rapes and murders. Tears stream down his face and he begs Dr. Norton to kill him, relenting only when Norton insists this was done to him because of his wife and boring son. This scene alone is more character driven than anything in the original. Watching him beg for death and reconcile because this was his wife’s wish is a bit more impactful than him slinging a gun around his finger because his son thought it was cool when he saw it on TV.
Speaking of Gary Oldman, he is easily one of the best parts of this movie. He genuinely wants to help Murphy, and serves as a father figure to his new “son.” He's the only one who treats him like a human being right from the start. His wife and son are startled when they first see him, but from the first time he's turned on Dr. Norton is looking out for his best interests, and is the only one who tries to talk sense into him instead of just shutting him down when things don't work. He's responsible for Robocop, and has to compromise his own morals time and time again. First off he was promised his research wouldn't be used for military projects, but is convinced he could save hundreds of thousands of lives with this project. When Robocop is outperformed by drones in training simulations, Norton configures it so his software completely takes over in battle situations, but Murphy still thinks he's in control. When the visor goes down and his gun is drawn, Murphy isn't Murphy anymore, he just thinks he is. In reality he's just executing programs. Later in the movie Murphy becomes overwhelmed when witnessing his assassination attempt through the police database, so Norton lowers his dopamine levels until he's an emotionless zombie. Murphy ignores his wife and son and becomes, well, a machine. Every decision Norton makes is made with good intentions, but he has to compromise himself for what he truly believes is the greater good.
My other favorite major character is Michael Keaton, and every time him and Oldman are on screen together I get a big shit eating grin. They’re great actors and they play off each other well, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t mostly because it's Batman and Gordon. He's the head of OmniCorp and just a real slimy piece of shit, and he plays it well. His character is bland, but he does very well with the little he's given. He takes "be the generic evil executive who values profits over everything" and runs with it, but not to a campy level.
Most of the minor characters are fine. Sam Jackson has a bit part as a politcal television show host whose segments replace the interludes from the original. All the comedy is given to him and he knocks it out of the fucking park. Jackie Earle Haley is great as an OmniCorp employee who refers to Murphy solely as "Tin Man" and plays "If I Only Had A Brain" throughout his training exercises. Omar from The Wire is a nice little surprise in a bit part as Murphy's partner.
Then there's his family. They're a huge part of the plot, but they're the most bland 'who gives a shit' characters in the movie. In the original, Murphy is never in the same scene with his family after he dies. Here they play a huge role and do absolutely nothing of note with it. Jay Baruchel as some asshole marketing executive has more charisma in his five minutes of screen time than both the wife and son have throughout the entire movie. You can pretty much compare them to any other PG-13 action movie's wife and son. They're there, they don't ruin the scene, then they're gone until they're needed for the plot again. Let me put it this way: Sam Jackson probably filmed all of his scenes in an afternoon, and he gets higher billing than either of them, and for good reason.
So all in all, this movie gets way too bad of a reputation because of its name. That's its biggest problem, because it's a story that could easily stand alone as its own franchise. But if you do that, people go and see it and say "what the fuck, that was Robocop. That's bullshit!" but because it is called Robocop people go and see it and say "what the fuck, that wasn't Robocop. That's bullshit!" It's lose-lose and a bit unfair to everyone involved. There's a different side of the story to tell and I believe it was told well, but people want what they want. Keaton's character says people don’t know what they want until you show them, but it’s hard to show them when MGM is shooting down 90% of your ideas. I won't go into detail, but it's not hard to find out exactly what director Jose Padilha thought about the process of making this.
The biggest hangup I remember before it came out is the rating. Robocop is PG-13? What the FUCK? It's fine. The violence is fine for the story they're trying to tell. The director pushed for an R rating, but MGM seems to exist solely to hemorrhage money between Bond movies and they were going to get back every cent they could, and that meant no R rating. A little more violence is always welcome, but at no point does the rating hurt the final product.
What I like most about this movie is that although Robocop is basically a superhero, this doesn't play like a superhero movie at all. I'm there for every one of those movies and after they're over I think about how fucking awesome it would be to be Batman or Spider-Man or that guy from X-Men 3 who can grow spikes on his face. You watch this and go FUCK no. He's had his humanity ripped away from him and his own free will compromised. He barely resembles a human being and has had his own willpower taken away without even knowing. Peter Parker might have gotten into some shenanigans at high school with his new powers, but he was never reduced to a head, lungs, and a hand and pleaded the man responsible to "end this nightmare."
This review wasn't particularly funny because neither was the movie. It's a serious, dramatic take on an idea that seems a bit less ridiculous than it did thirty years ago and it succeeds in what it's trying to do. I'm not going to go back through it and shoehorn in some jokes because the movie doesn't, either. None of the characters are giving their lines with their tongue planted in their cheek and it's not over the top terrible and ripe for picking apart. I'd put it alongside the Carrie remake, also by MGM. It's a newer take on an older story: it's a bit smarter, more grounded in reality, and takes the premise much more seriously, but it loses some of the silliness and charm.
Final Verdict: I know this isn't saying much, but it's easily the second best Robocop movie. Expectations are everything, so just know you're gonna get a whole lot of character drama. I doubt it's going to stand the test of time - as a matter of fact it will probably be completely forgotten once all of the Summer superhero movies are out on Blu Ray - but it's worth a Redbox rental.