The biggest sin of the new RoboCop is that it’s called RoboCop. Jose Padilha’s 2014 reboot happens to be a decent – good in many ways, actually – film faced with the highly unenviable task of updating an outright classic. There is no replacing Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 film, which continues to tower over any other property in this surprisingly enduring brand, but Padilha and screenwriter Joshua Zetumer score major points for putting their own thoughtful and occasionally brave stamp on the story.
I say “brave” because this RoboCop goes surprisingly off script from the original film. In fact, it might be the first exploited property in ages that actually earns the right to call itself a “reboot” rather than a “remake.” While all of the major chess pieces from Verhoeven’s film are present – Alex Murphy, OCP (called OmniCorp here), Lewis, Murphy’s family – they’re used in such totally different ways that the narrative itself is completely overhauled. There are actually new ideas present in this film, which intertwines the corporate malfeasance of the original into a somewhat pointed attack on our country’s use of drone warfare. Not only is the conversation somewhat topical, but the manner in which RoboCop’s cyborg “biology” is approached also dares to veer into uncharted territory for the franchise.
Padilha’s direction is more than solid and the performances aren’t bad either. Joel Kinnaman is fine as Alex Murphy, recasting the character as something more of a cynic than Peter Weller’s idealistic interpretation. Gary Oldman adds another warmly paternal turn to his resume as Dr. Norton, a far more sympathetic scientist than you’d find in Verhoeven’s world. Michael Keaton is fantastic as OmniCorp’s corrupt CEO. Aside from Abbie Cornish’s character being given short shrift by the script, all of the supporting turns are capable as well.
If it seems like I’m simply checking off a list of things this new RoboCop does right, it’s because I am. I was fully prepared to hate this movie and I was surprised that it offered something new, even if it doesn’t quite take its ideas far enough. After being battered by countless incompetent remakes over the past two or three years, I was relieved to be watching a fully coherent motion picture.
Unfortunately, the things I truly love about the 1987 RoboCop are almost entirely missing here. While there’s some workable satire in the new film, it misses the arch lunacy that makes its predecessor truly special. And while there’s some decent action, there is absolutely zero gore. I’m not upset by these changes and omissions, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t discuss how this new version lacks the lovably vile vitality we’ve come to know and love from the brand its exploiting.
Ultimately, Jose Padilha’s RoboCop is fine. In fact, it does an impressive job of negating over a year of bad press and negative speculation. On more than one occasion I even found myself impressed and engaged by what the film was doing. It’s just hard not to notice when something good chooses to walk in the footsteps of something great.