A few weeks back I was watching TV with friends who don't follow movies that closely. On came the ad for 'RoboCop.' They were baffled. “Who needs this?” they asked.
Forget that we were all old enough to remember the first one. This wasn't just defending our childhoods. If you want to step on a classic – and 'RoboCop' is something of a classic – you better come correct. What's this new one going to offer? The original's action and sly satire aren't dated. Who needs this?
I am afraid I must report that nobody needs this.
The new 'RoboCop' isn't terrible. It's certainly better than the recent 'Total Recall.' It just can't compete. Even when it deviates from the original with unique story beats, the film is never engrossing to the point that you stop doing mental compare/contrast.
The social commentary in the first 'RoboCop' is a little bit subtle. At least compared to the follow-up Paul Verhoeven/Ed Neumaier collaboration 'Starship Troopers.' This time, the film goes all-in, and wants you to know, from the very first frame, that this is making some sort of POINT.
Samuel L. Jackson plays the frothing Glenn Beck/Wolf Blitzer newsfotainment anchor, swooping his hands and manipulating graphic displays. He supports OmniCorp and wants the robot drones that are (allegedly) pacifying places like Iran to get a handle on domestic crime.
Namby-pamby Senators like Zach Grenier stand in the way of businessmen like Michael Keaton who might have, at one point, actually cared about security or even science but now is wholly focused on his company's bottom line. Without penetrating the American market with their robots they are toast.
On staff is Gary Oldman, in peak form, a scientist whose work with cybernetics allows amputees to play Spanish guitar. Keaton dangles funding in front of him for his altruistic projects if he's able to come up with a way to get their unstoppable killbots to merge with a marketable “human” that the US Congress will accept has some sort of “free will.”
It may sound weird, but the boardroom scenes in 'RoboCop' are the ones that work best. Keaton, Oldman, Jennifer Ehle and Jay Baruchel are all pretty top notch as suits with varying degrees of hubris. The stuff that isn't interesting is – unfortunately – the plight of Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) the cop inside RoboCop.
Once Detroit thugs try to assassinate him, OmniCorp takes what's left of Murphy and keeps him alive as a brain in a vat. Actually, he's a brain, a face, a hand and (ewwww) a gross set of lungs in plexiglass. These scenes have a weirdo sci-fi appeal that I wish director Jose Padilha would have run with. (There are other glimmers of exploitation movie humor – like the news ticker that mentions, among other things, space hookers.) Unfortunately, for every moment of Oldman tugging on Robo's brain (“I taste peanut butter”) or manipulating his consciousness with drugs there's snooze-o-rama stuff with Robo's wife (attractive, but dull Abbie Cornish) and his kid.
The action in this 'RoboCop' stinks. One big boss battle is done in the dark. It's as if Padilha just ran out of ideas, shrugged and turned off the lights. Others scenes are just computer generated figures spraying machine guns at one another. An absolute bore.
More annoyingly, there's barely any actual RoboCop-ing. It's all build-up and then, wham, after a 20-second TV news clip, he's on to solving the mystery of his own “murder.” Lame.
If you beamed in from outer space and never knew there was an original 'RoboCop,' this would be a relatively okay action/sci-fi picture with a better sense of humor than most. But, we don't live in that world. We live in a world where you can get a stream of the original 'RoboCop' on the HDTV in no time. You should buy that for a dollar.
'RoboCop' opens in theaters on February 12.
Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen on Badass Digest and StarTrek.com.