Dead or alive, you're getting a reboot. Long in the works and desired by absolutely nobody, the remake of Paul Verhoeven's satirical sci-fi actioner Robocop has been dreaded by those who feared it would lack the teeth of the original. But what will come as a surprise to those who have prematurely mocked it and all of the early images of star Joel Kinnaman's robo bat-suit, is that the film is forward thinking enough to have some big ideas while also providing a solid dose of violent justice.
While not as progressive as Verhoeven's effort, this one crafted by Elite Squad director Jose Padilha is certainly a product of today's drone warfare culture and the dominance of the military industrial complex. Like its predecessor, the message is obvious, current, and delivered with enough humor that the general lack of character doesn't totally shut down the system.
In the not-so-distant future, nearly the entire world has turned to the use of militarized drones for law enforcement and military tactics. Weaponized droids stalk the streets of Tehran while the citizens live under what is later described as "the illusion of free will". There is an obvious anti-drone rebellion out there causing a ruckus, but here in the United States drones have been strictly forbidden, a fact which continues to gall OmniCorp CEO, Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), who hopes to bring it here. But despite the efforts of bloviating Bill O'Reilly-esque propaganda artist Pat Novak (of the hilariously-named The Novak Element), Congress refuses to pass a bill allowing the use of drones on American soil. This is satire in the pure Verhoeven mold because you can turn on the TV right now and see guys just like Novak spouting the same sort of fact-free rubbish; pumping their patriotic chests while deeming their enemies terrorists or cowards.
Turns out what the people want is a robot with a human touch, a droid that knows right from wrong. And so OmniCorp finds the perfect test subject in Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), a lean and brave Detroit detective with the courage to fight corruption within his own ranks. When Murphy's investigations get him blown up by a car bomb, leaving his body devastated, his wife (Abbie Cornish) agrees to sign him over to OmniCorp in hopes of saving his life. "What kind of life will he have?” she asks, not knowing that it will be a life of steel exo-skins and prime directives. His transformation begins in earnest, led by the ethically-ambiguous Dr. Norton (Gary Oldman) and cheered by Sellars who just wants a marketable product. As Alex comes to grips with being a walking cyborg, including a powerful moment where he sees what his body really looks like, he's left to wonder if the man he used to be exists underneath the armor and programming.
Padilha, who directed the intense Elite Squad cop flicks, works around the PG-13 and delivers some top notch video game action, including a brilliantly kinetic sequence lit only by the flash of blast rifle fire. The Robocop side of things isn't the issue; it's the Alex Murphy side where Joshua Zetumer loses focus. There simply isn't enough to distinguish Murphy beyond his good looks, and everything involving his brothers in blue (including Michael K. Williams as his former partner) is undeveloped. The same goes for his family life which mostly seems like a component nobody wanted to deal, in favor of getting back to the shenanigans over at OmniCorp. And truth be told, the biggest ideas and the best characters are all from the corporate powerhouse. Jay Baruchel gets geeky as a sniveling marketing guru, while Jennifer Ehle and Jackie Earle Hayley make for a particularly devious roundtable of henchman for Keaton to play off of. Kinnaman doesn't really hold up against such a strong supporting cast, but he finds occasional moments of genuine heartbreak in Murphy's interactions with his son, who looks up to Dad as a hero.
Verhoeven's prior films have proved especially popular territory for remakes of late, with the stink of Total Recall still wafting in the air. So it's good to see that someone put some actual thought into making Robocop cool and contemporary, rather than it being just another generic reboot in an empty robotic suit.