Director: José Padilha
Writers: Joshua Zetumer
Starring: Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Samuel L. Jackson
“Forget the machines. They want a product with a conscience. Something that knows what it feels like to be human. We gonna put a man inside a machine.”
To reboot a highly unique film which hasn’t aged badly requires a really special spin to be brought to the table, and make no mistake – Robocop 2014 is a reboot with a whole new identity. The plot and characters of the original have been almost entirely replaced while most of the iconic scenes (frequently referenced in pop culture) have been dropped altogether.
The decision to start from square 1 may seem like heresy to overweight men in their 30s but in order for the reboot to be at all worthwhile it is probably the most sensible choice.
The 1987 cult classic Robocop didn’t rely too heavily on special effects given that it was a simple riff on Dirty Harry except the campaign of vengeance was dished out by a Titanium clad robotic cop. Despite bursting with violence and memorable action scenes there is still some opportunity to use the magic of modern CGI up to 11 and offer a full throttle action blockbuster.
Instead director José Padilha has opted to follow Christopher Nolan’s success of ignoring the inherent silliness of his subject and using it to tell a more mature and realistic human story whilst tackling heavy political issues. Its a surprisingly ambitious approach for Robocop and an admirable move but one which doesn’t really pay off at all.
Alex Murphy is an ambitious and gung-ho young detective leading an undercover operation to bust wide open a narcotics gang. The play goes badly and Alex finds himself the target of angry mob bosses out for revenge. Its no great spoiler to reveal that Murphy is mortally wounded and ends up being donated by his easily manipulated wife to a military programme which specialises in advanced robotics and may be able to save his life and make him whole again.
So far so familiar…
Attempts to add depth to the concept switch focus to the awkward interactions between the reborn cop and his family, moral dilemmas faced by Gary Oldman’s scientist, and political tensions over the use of drones in homeland security.
The attempt to deliver a deeper story has much potential but falters on several levels, not least of which is the poor casting and inclusion of far too many unmemorable characters. Joel Kinnaman fails to make the role of Murphy anything special, coming across as little more than a dull every-man. The flat and unrealistically brief reaction Murphy has to his horrific situation is bizarre, especially considering he remains fully conscious and his old self (unlike the mind wiped reanimated Murphy in the original).
In stark contrast to the rest of the forgettable cast is Michael Keaton who turns up his unhinged wacky routine up to unbearable levels of irritation, turning the role of the central villain it something of a farce in an otherwise serious film.
Samuel L Jackson pops up intermittently as a comical amalgamation of several Fox News personalities to add some satire to the role of the media in big US homeland political debates, and while seeming a little heavy handed, it is actually disturbingly true to the stage managed and overacted real life versions.
While not really going anywhere satisfying these tangents and meandering plot threads end up cluttering and slowing down what is essentially an action thriller.
The primary problem though is that the very frequent bouts of action are shockingly tame and heavily restricted by the 12A certificate. Rather than shooting peoples balls off at point blank range, stabbing them through the neck with a spike, or tricking opponents into a vat of toxic waste, this Robocop is happy to stay at a safe distance, pulling flash moves on his motorbike, and incapacitating obscured scumbags with stun shots. There are lots of neat camera angles and pounding music but no real punch to any of it. Even the climatic battle with ED209 turns out to be a heavily choreographed ballet dance more befitting a super hero than the methodical heavyweight destruction we should expect to be dished out from the lumbering Robocop.
This consistently lukewarm action is a massive disappointment given the pulsating and hard hitting favela shoot outs crafted by Padilha in the Elite Squad films, which presumably got him the gig in the first place.
The severe reduction in the role of the street gangster villians, each so memorable in the original, is a vital mistake which completely undermines Murphy’s essential personal campaign of revenge, which here lasts all of 10 minutes. Instead things quickly refocus on a bizarre one way rivalry with a completely pointless para military guy and a bunch of suits plotting their media campaign in a boardroom, all of which seems to have little relevance for Robo or us.
It is a small mercy that the always tedious exercise of packing reboots with nonsensical references and paraphrasing of the original are kept to a minimum and when they do happen they are not particularly forced or winked at to the camera. Incredibly “I’ll buy that for a dollar” is used only once, as are Murphy’s various catchphrases which are delivered in a perfectly reasonable context.
It would be tempting to try and defend Robocop 2014 as it does build and maintain its own personality and makes an ambitious attempt to add something more to what was a fairly straight forward Dirty Harry style concept to begin with. It is not altogether a disaster but what seemed like a pointless exercise to begin with manages to fail at the one thing it had a chance to improve upon – the action. A reasonably good looking but curiously boring film which offers little in the way of gripping story or excitement.