If you were worried about this reboot lacking the wit of the original RoboCop, those fears are allayed as soon as the MGM lion opens its mouth before the opening credits. Instead of a roar, we hear the silly sounds of someone making bubble noises with their lips.
That someone turns out to be Samuel L. Jackson, warming up his voice as Pat Novak, host of an O’Reilly Factor-style talk show in the near future. The subject of his rant on this episode? How the robotic “peacekeepers” of Operation Freedom Tehran have so successfully pacified a war zone that they should be employed as police officers on America’s crime-ridden streets.
If the 1987 RoboCop, directed by Paul Verhoeven, depicted how a fearful society opens the door for totalitarian tactics, this update takes place in a future where totalitarianism is already in place – in the name of a war on terror. The opening sequence – in which a battalion of robots, walking tanks and overhead drones march down a Tehran street, submitting terrified citizens to body scans – is a not-so-subtle nod to American’s recent and current occupations. When a group of suicide bombers attack, RoboCop becomes one part District 9 and two parts The Hurt Locker.
Eventually the movie settles Stateside, where robotics manufacturer Raymond Sellars (a delightfully caffeinated Michael Keaton) and his top scientist (Gary Oldman) come upon a way to sell their products to the American public: put a human face on it. And so Detroit detective Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), recent victim of a car bombing, is given a second shot at life, albeit as a programmable cyborg.
This RoboCop spends far more time on Murphy’s experience.
This RoboCop spends far more time on Murphy’s experience (Verhoeven was more interested in his picture’s bad guys). There’s a Cronenbergian moment of body horror when Murphy is taken apart in front of a mirror and gasps, “There’s nothing left!” Later scenes involving his wife (Abbie Cornish) and young son (John Paul Ruttan) hint at the relational anguish of his ordeal. In many ways, the movie is a more conventional, superhero origin story, and thereby less of an exhilarating wild card than its predecessor.
It’s also not much of an action film. After that fairly gripping opening, director Jose Padilha resorts to a standard, point-and-shoot approach. It’s a logical choice – we’re seeing things through Murphy’s enhanced perspective – but also one that seems ironically old-fashioned. During its big action sequences, RoboCop feels an awful lot like an early video-game adaptation.
Still, the movie has a lot of bite in those framing scenes with Jackson, some good philosophy of free will to chew on when Murphy tries to counter his programming and surprising moments of delicacy here and there (I like when Murphy’s wife instinctively drops her head against his chest and we hear a hollow thud). True, we probably didn’t need another RoboCop, but we could have gotten one that was a lot worse. At one point Jackson’s Pat Novak stares into the camera and demands of his viewers: “Are you robo-phobic!?” Not me.