In his creative heyday in the ’80s, Dutch director Paul Verhoeven was a tricky cuss. He achieved early success in his native country subverting genres (a wacked-out noir in The Fourth Man; an earnest-seeming teen motocross flick in Spetters) before making a gleeful hash of things in the U.S. with cleverly satiric sci-fi films like Total Recall and his first American success, RoboCop. Before he hooked up with screenwriter Joe Eszterhas to make the idiotic Basic Instinct and even more brainlessly camp Showgirls, Verhoeven showed a canny touch with his material, coaxing hilarious over-the-top performances from his cast and inviting intriguing dramatic juxtapositions with just enough visual panache to sew the whole thing together.
The original RoboCop, scripted by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner - about a family-man cop who is killed while on duty and returned as a cyborg scourge of crime in a future Detroit overrun with vice, corruption and hopelessness - was a celebration of Verhoeven’s peculiar set of strengths. With a brilliantly cast of fatuous villains, sadistic low-lifes and desperately beseeching heroes, he set upon the jet-black satire of the screenplay like a jaguar on a dropped deer carcass, producing a deeply satisfying action film that for all its comic silliness - and memorable lines (“I like it!” “I’ll buy that for a dollar!”) - still packed a substantial punch. You cared about poor, misbegotten Alex Murphy, reconstituted as a super-cop but all alone in the world, and you properly despised the villains, from treacherous corporate-types to snarky gang-bangers.
All of this resulted in a box-off ice winner that spawned a couple of much-lesser sequels, doomed, as it were, without Verhoeven’s services. This remake, from Brazilian director Jose Padilha, attempts to engage the same sort of audience - but much like the dreadfully inert 2012 remake of Verhoeven’s Total Recall, a similarly satiric and bugnuts original - without the master’s gently subversive touch, the spirit of the film withers on the vine.
The story is similar, but significantly different in ways that seem to directly damage the final product (and not just in replacing Nancy Allen as Murphy’s sidekick with Michael K. Williams). In futuristic Detroit, Omnicorp, a giant defense manufacturing corporation led by charismatic billionaire Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), is on to the next big thing: fully robotic military and law enforcement. But due to a pesky federal law blocking the United States from using such machines on home soil, and low approval ratings overall, Sellars and his head marketing team (Jennifer Ehle and Jay Baruchel) devise a way around the problem: Take an existing cop on the verge of death and insert his brain into a machine.
Bringing brilliant research and development scientist Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) on board, they pluck Detective Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), just blown up by the nefarious drug kingpin Antoine Vallon (Patrick Garrow), off of life support and place him in the program with the consent of his beautiful, heartbroken wife, Clara (Abbie Cornish). Once built, this RoboCop goes about the business of dedicated crime fighting, with Norton and his assistants frantically trying to regulate his dopamine levels so he doesn’t fly off the handle and hunt down his would-be killers; an effort on the part of the doctor that, as you can imagine, ultimately fails.
The film dutifully brings us complicated gun battles and various mechanized showdowns. But gone entirely is the nearly jubilant, twisted approach to the material in Verhoeven’s original, the dark humor, memorable characters and imaginatively bloody action. This version, from a screenplay by Joshua Zetumer, stays safely within its PG-13 confines and dares not veer off its course of entirely predictable action.
In lieu of the original’s satiric news broadcasts and mocking commercials (“Big is back, because bigger is better than ever! 6000 SUX: An American Tradition!”), this deeply watered-down version just sticks with a lame Fox News-style show called The Novak Element, with a stiff-legged Samuel L. Jackson as the host Pat Novak, spewing conservative news bites across a giant, multi-screen stage, and looking suspiciously like one of his Capital One commercials.
Where the film truly fails is in its decided lack of cleverness. Screenwriter Zetumer rarely challenges his Robo creation in any kind of difficult-to-win scenario, so he repeatedly sacrifices drama for convenience. A trial-run face-off between a souped-up RoboCop, his human antagonist Rick Mattox (Jackie Earle Haley), a military adviser in charge of the original, fully robotic protocol, and a veritable army of robotic assault officers results in a dreary shoot-up that has RoboCop knocking them down like so many clay pigeons. The climactic battle in Omnicorp’s headquarters goes every bit as expected, the film never once deigning to twist and turn from the blithely obvious.
By contrast, the supreme sense of satisfaction of the original film came with the way in which it so stacked the odds against its hero. The human police force, beset with budget cuts, threatened strikes and corporate takeovers, is completely overrun by the rampant crime in a bankrupt city (echoing an unfortunate real-life moment in Detroit’s recent history). OCP, meanwhile, drunk with power and led by a tyrannical vice president (memorably played by Ronny Cox), is waging a public relations war with its crime-busting division, having ultimate corporate power and career advancement hanging in the balance. It was such a cesspool of corruption and brutality, having a virtually indestructible hero - even one as beset with painful memories as this one - was a thrilling glimmer of hope in an otherwise oppressively bleak setting.
The new RoboCop might be painted black for coolness’ sake, but the rest of the film is just boringly pallid.
77 Cast: Joel Kinnaman, Abbie Cornish, Michael Keaton, Gary Oldman, Jackie Earle Haley, Michael K. Williams, Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Ehle, Jay Baruchel Director: Jose Padilha Rating: PG-13, for intense sequences of action including frenetic gun violence throughout, brief strong language, sensuality and some drug involvement Running time: 108 minutes
MovieStyle, Pages 33 on 02/14/2014