Robocop, it seems, is the go-to property for Hollywood studios interested in handing millions of dollars to foreign directors interested in attacking America.
The year 1987 saw the debut of Robocop, Paul Verhoeven’s satirical take on Hollywood’s fascination with fascist flatfoots. The Dutch director’s camera trained a critical eye not only on big business—Omni Consumer Products’ amoral board of directors personified the "greed is good" ethos a full five months before the debut of Oliver Stone’s Wall Street—but also on the coarsening of pop culture. Verhoeven viewed his criminal killing machine as the logical endpoint of the Dirty Harry mindset, and foresaw the rise of crass reality television.
Whereas Verhoeven was happy to take a blowtorch to all sides, Brazilian José Padilha is myopically focused on the so-called Military-Industrial Complex, crudely shoehorning an anti-drone message into an annoyingly bland and generic cop drama with a couple of cool sci-fi elements.
Robocop redux opens on the set of The Novak Element, an O’Reilly Factor-like news program hosted by a flamboyant Samuel L. Jackson. The year is 2028. One of Jackson’s reporters is on the ground in Tehran, covering "Operation Freedom Tehran," a pacification campaign being waged almost entirely by unmanned robots. Tired of seeing their people disrespected, a band of Iranian "freedom fighters" plots a suicide attack on a squad of ED-209s—but only after making sure to us in the audience that they are blowing themselves up in front of the camera for publicity, not to kill Americans.
We’ll see this kind of subtlety throughout.
Meanwhile, in the States, OmniCorp’s board of directors is trying to figure out a way to circumvent a prohibition on using unmanned drones for domestic policing. Desperate to soak up billions in profits by putting robots on the streets, Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) decides that what the company needs is a way to sell its wares directly to the public. It needs a symbol, a test of concept that will appeal to an American public cowed by crime but skeptical of robots.
Enter Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), a good cop determined to bring down a drug dealer in derelict Detroit. After he’s taken out by a car bomb, Murphy is brought to the attention of OmniCorp and its in-house research guru, Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman). Norton is using his robotic tech to replace the limbs of amputees—a program Sellars is only all-too-happy to appropriate in order to build the killing machine of his company’s dreams.
Robocop redux’s myopia isn’t its only problem. The central metaphor doesn’t survive being transported from 1987 to 2014: America’s citizens are no longer cowering in fear from the criminal class, so the idea that they would clamor for police departments to spend billions replacing cops with robots to combat a new breed of super killers is bizarrely anachronistic.
Similarly, the fact that Robocop is so good at his job—and that the filmmakers go so far out of their way to portray everyone he stops with extreme prejudice as a bad guy who has either committed a horrible crime or is about to commit a horrible crime—neuters the intended critique of drone-as-cop. Shouldn’t we be in favor of a cop who doesn’t allow emotion to cloud his judgment, never makes mistakes, takes out criminals with the aid of a non-lethal Tazer-gun, and cleans up the corrupt police force?
The satirical elements of the original—the one-liners that could have been cribbed from some Schwarzenegger production, the violence played for laughs—are largely stripped from Padilha’s toned down remake. Instead we have a generic shoot-em-up for much of the film, one no different than any other.
There are a couple of interesting flourishes, though. The cybernetic reconstruction of Murphy is horrifyingly detailed (and renders the PG-13 production unsuitable for pre-teens). There’s also a moderately intriguing debate about free will as it relates to chemical imbalances in the brain. Unfortunately, this is a plot point Padilha clearly has no idea what to do with. As a result, this interesting philosophical question is shoved aside in order to get to more shooting, and more whining about the dread Military-Industrial Complex.