Remakes typically face an uphill battle, often intensified by the reverence still placed on the original. To say the least, it is a near impossible task to balance honoring the original, while also making something unique and its own entity. That is why so many remakes fail. (I will do my best not to labor on the fact that most remakes are unnecessary to begin with and almost always inferior products. No promises though).
The original RoboCop (released in 1987) is still a beloved cult classic. So filmmakers had their work cut out for them with the remake, which is directed by Brazilian filmmaker José Padilha, whose Elite Squad action films were very well-received.
As with a recent rush of sci-fi and action movie remakes, the formula is to go bigger and darker – so that is what the RoboCop filmmakers did. They ratchet up the special effects and action (though in a disappointingly PG-13 way) while adding a good bit brooding intensity. Unfortunately, they forgot the keep the humor, satire, and its consequential over-the-top violence that made the original so much fun and relevant. They do attempt some fairly obvious and ham-fisted political and social commentary, but it is ultimately abandoned before it can provide any significant impact.
The first misstep RoboCop makes is with its lead, or more specifically, the “man part” of the half-man, half-robot. Joel Kinnaman, an actor who is normally likeable, is stiff and detached even before he gets in the clunky metal suit. The film is so desperate to get him into the suit quickly that the audience never gets to know the man or form the necessary emotional connection to him and his family. The filmmakers’ prove that action is more important than story this time around.
So what about that all-important action? It is actually pretty good, but not particularly memorable. The robots are well rendered and pack a tremendous amount of gunfire. Employing a good bit of shaky-cam, the action sequences are well choreographed and tense in the moment, but largely forgettable after the fact. One in particular does perfectly capture the frenetic first-person shooter video-game style that so many movies have failed at before, but that is about it. All is going well in the final blowout too – until its hurried push to an anti-climatic finale.
After Kinnaman, the rest of the cast is mishmash of good, bad, and underused. As the moral compass of the film, every scene that Gary Oldman is in just proves that he is too good for this movie and the role. Ultimately the same sensible, but handcuffed observer he is in The Dark Knight trilogy, it speaks wonders to his talent that he is able to make anything notable out of it.
As RoboCop’s wife, Abbie Cornish does what she can with a role that mostly requires her to look anxious. In what is a near non-existent character, Michael K. Williams plays the loyal partner (a female in the original). Samuel L. Jackson quickly wears out his welcome as an all-too-familiar, one-note, demagogue-styled pundit, likely being controlled by the nefarious Omnicorp. Also serving Omnicorp, Jay Baruchel, Jennifer Ehle, and especially Jackie Earle Haley all have their brief moments to shine as the support team to the bad guys.
With a minimalistic office and postmodern art adorning his walls, Michael Keaton is a CEO for today, complete with jeans and casual sweaters. He also is a villain for the modern age – equipped with the latest technology at his fingertips, a calculated intellect, and likeable public persona. But behind doors, he is an opportunistic and emotionless madman desperate for even more money and power. Keaton shows flashes of his former eccentric self (a Beetlejuice twinkle in his eye), but is ultimately too restrained and normal to be a memorable bad guy (and perhaps his everyman persona was the point – either way it does not work).
The movie itself does not work either. It does little to distinguish itself as its own thing. Unlike the original, the RoboCop remake does not take its audience seriously. It updated the story and action, but in all the wrong ways, while forgetting to carry over the best elements of the original (besides a few famous lines of dialogue).
Throughout the film, the question is repeatedly posed: who is control – the man or the machine? At one point, Alex Murphy/RoboCop’s serotonin levels are dropped drastically low to all but effectively remove his lingering human emotions and allow the machine to take over. Like Murphy/RoboCop himself, the movie cannot easily overcome its programming. Moviegoing audiences today demand guns, chases, and explosions over satire, meaning, or almost anything thought-provoking. And it is clear, with the RoboCop remake, the Hollywood studio-blockbuster machine is firmly in control. The focus is on brawn, not brain, much to the detriment of the film and the original’s endearing spirit.
* * out of 5 stars
RoboCop opens in theaters nationwide on Wednesday, February 12 and locally at The Theatres at Canal Place, Chalmette Movies, The Grand 14 at Esplanade, and all three AMC Palace theaters (Elmwood 20, Westbank 16 on Wednesday and Clearview 12 on Friday).
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