The year is 2028 and world order has been restored thanks to the advent of Omnicorp and their militia-for-hire comprised of state of the art robotics which now govern nearly every country across the globe. Every country except the United States of America that is, which is something CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) and his biggest supporter, the personal agenda pushing TV personality Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson) aim to change. The only way they can get American citizens past their robo-phobia however is to create a robot that has all the unique capabilities of a simple robot, but also has all the attributes of a human being.
Their answer comes calling when Detroit detective Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) finds himself the victim of an explosion caused by a local crime kingpin. Suffering burns over 85% of his body, the loss of his left leg, his right arm, blind in one eye and with a severed spine that guarantees he will never walk again, Murphy's wife Clara (Abbie Cornish) gives Omnicorp's leading cybernetics scientist, Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) the permission he needs to turn Murphy into the world's very first...Robocop, and Omnicorp's golden opportunity to shove their agenda down the population's throat.
The phrase you are likely to hear about this updated and very sleek looking Robocop is that it isn't horrible, but it still isn't as good as the original. Now, while on the surface that sounds like a damning statement, truth be told it could have and likely should have been much much worse than that. You see, the fact of the matter is that director Jose Padilha was wise to not replicate the original film. By taking out much of the comedy from its social commentary and making this a near bloodless affair for all those action hungry teenagers out there, he has crafted a reboot that isn't the typical cash-in. Padilha's Robocop actually has something to say and what it says actually has some weight to it.
Now, the first and most noticeably absent hallmark of the original Robocop is its trademark satirical nature. No longer poking fun at how the media glorifies bloodshed and a high body count, no longer making those in charge of big business seem like these cartoonish bloodthirsty serial killers with a large bank account, this Robocop is much more serious about its realworld politics. Much of the comedy has been replaced with a frighteningly realistic depiction of what amounts to the possibility of Marshall law on U.S. soil and how corporate America as a whole just wants to control everything and everyone. It taps into that inherent fear we all have of being under the thumb of a dictatorship Government and being tricked into making it happen.
But there is actually more going on here than just some none-too-subtle political statements being tossed around about our government's policy on drones, the film also keeps in tack most of the origin story for Robocop and making some interesting tweaks to his hardware in the process. In the original we only ever got to see Alex Murphy's life in flashbacks which put the focus squarely on Murphy's mission to seek revenge on those who killed him and on those who also seek to control him. While keeping that underlying story element in the forefront, we also get to see the emotional impact this has on Murphy once he has had his accident and is given a second life as Robocop.
Watching the original film, it doesn't even feel as though we needed to witness the anguish or anger Murphy went through while adjusting to his new body and life, and that was because Verhoeven kept us invested with plenty of wit and copious amounts of bloodshed and some truly memorable characters. But you would be surprised at how effective it is actually seeing the torment and eventual mental breakdown of Murphy as he is developed and built overseas in China (a joke the movie sadly misses out on with Robocop being made in China).
There comes a scene early on after Murphy is told what has happened to him where the only way he will understand is by showing him what he is. This sequence could have easily been groan worthy or played too melodramatic, but as Murphy witnesses first hand as his body is taken apart piece by piece and sees that nearly nothing of himself remains, it is a surprisingly powerful image that really strikes home later on when he is reunited with his wife and son and we realize that despite Murphy retaining his personality and memories, he will never be the man he was before.
Another place the film earns some points is how we see the progression of Murphy being systematically reduced to nothing more than this simple machine and having his humanity slowly drained from him. In the original it was never really examined too much about how Murphy suddenly regains his humanity and becomes this free thinking individual. Here, Padilha takes some wisely spent extra time to show us not only how, but why Murphy must lose his humanity to become the piece of machinery that Omnicorp needs to sell America on the idea of a Robo-nation and the resulting effect is that we connect with Kinnaman's Murphy in a way we never did with Peter Weller.
The one aspect to the film that wasn't too surprising is the stable of actors they got for the supporting roles in the film. While Kinnaman is fine in the role of Robocop (he's still no Peter Weller though), it is his supporting cast that really classes up this reboot and gives dramatic weight to characters that could have easily been card board cutouts. Michael Keaton is perfect as the head of Omnicorp with his evil Steve Jobs swagger that he puts on. Gary Oldman is given the most complex character in the film who must make these impossible decisions that only an actor of his prowess is able to show how much it hurts him underneath his outer shell.
But the man who undeniably steals the film from everyone is Samuel L. Jackson who is finally cast in a role custom built for his acting talents. While it's true that his sequences aren't that long and only appear intermittently throughout the film, but if there is one thing Jackson has always excelled at, it is giving speeches. Here, as the shock jock television sensation Pat Novak, he is literally scaring the crap out of America every time he opens his mouth. Let's face it, if Samuel L. Jackson looks you in the eye and begins yelling at you, you will listen.
Now, the film predictably has some unfortunate problem areas that rear their ugly heads to remind us that this is in fact an inferior film when compared to the original. First and most important is the lack of any true villain. Keaton is evil, but he is just some dude behind a desk. His right hand man Mattox (Jackie Earl Haley) is more smug than evil. There is no equivalent to the awesomeness that is Kurtwood Smith as Clarence Boddicker. Even Robocop's robotic nemesis ED-209 proves to be somewhat worthless and never has a chance to shine.
This really becomes apparent during the finale when Robocop is chasing after the bad guys and he really has no worthy adversary to square off against. Robocop has always been somewhat like a superhero, complete with numerous villains and a tattered origin story. So, just like any superhero, he is only as interesting as the villains he faces off against and sadly the villains in this Robo-reboot just aren't up to the task. What's even worse is that the couple the film does have, such as the aforementioned Mattox and a weak city crime lord are taken out so easily that you never feel as though Robocop was in any real danger.
Lastly, and you have been waiting for this one, that PG-13 rating does hurt the film in the end. While the filmmakers are to be applauded for never drawing too much attention to the fact that they are keeping things rather tame throughout, the area the film gets hurt is with its depiction of Detroit. In the original, Detroit was a rotting cesspool of all sorts of scumbags that were just aching to have an indestructable police officer take them down. In this remake however, Detroit isn't really all that bad and appears to be on the same level of a place like Los Angeles.
This of course begs the question of why is there such an outcry for there to be this police state in place? Does Detroit really need an army of robots patrolling the streets for kids selling weed and to hunt down some wanted murderers? In the original that answer would be an easy yes, but in this remake the film fails to make the point that America needs this extra security. Throwing in some vile criminals like Clarence and his gang or just having some of the brutality that was so gleefully present in the original could have made this future city and country appear to be in dire straights and Robocop would be the only one to set things right. As it stands though, it is difficult to process how anyone thinks Omnicorp is needed at all.
Don't let any of that negativity persuade from not seeing the film though. For the few critical things it got wrong, this different and more serious direction for Robocop has also gotten a few critical things right as well, some that even the superior original never even touched upon. Where Robocop goes from here is anyones guess and despite having plenty of room for a sequel, it will ultimately depend on the reception the film is given at the box office. If you were on the fence about seeing this because you love the original so much, don't let that bias prevent you from seeing this entertaining and very cool reboot to a franchise that had been gone for far too long.
As far as reboots go, this updated Robocop is sleek, action packed and even intriguing at times and that is enough justification for its existence. Sadly though, it will never outclass the original, but considering how bad this project could have turned out, we should be thankful for small miracles. Here's hoping next time we get the R rated version Robocop deserves and that he gets a foe that is worthy of his attention.