Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 RoboCop — along with movies like Verhoeven’s Total Recall (1990) and Paul Michael Glaser’s The Running Man (1987) — were staples of The ABC Sunday Night Movie and were in heavy rotation on premium cable during my youth. That being said, I don’t hold the movie in any real esteem these days, and I find the reputation it’s developed over the years — thanks in part to its heavy-handed, obvious subtext — a bit silly. While I don’t think Verhoeven is a dumb man, he can be a bit lacking in subtlety, and the original RoboCop is the perfect example of this. The movie is a goofy monument to excessive ‘80s action filmmaking that attempts to gussy itself up with some pretty boorish social commentary totally lacking in nuance.
In other words, I can see where José Padilha could make improvements upon the original. I also acknowledge that the remake should be judged on its own merits, separately from Verhoeven’s film. The problem is that Padilha manages none of the potential improvements, and he is so insistent on openly and obviously referencing the original film that it’s impossible to be mindful of separating the two. Padilha’s RoboCop follows the general outline of the original. Set in a crime-riddled Detroit of the none-too-distant future (though a much less gritty version than is found in Verhoeven’s), cop Alex Murphy (TV actor Joel Kinnaman) is nearly murdered, but he is given a second shot at life — and justice — after being put into a robotic suit. Where Verhoeven’s film was about corporatism, consumerism and what it means to be human, Padilha’s film attempts to go further, and there’s definitely the subject matter to do so. RoboCop himself is approached more as a product to be marketed (complete with focus groups), and the film broaches very important, very topical subjects like drone warfare and the surveillance state. Even so, the most cutting the film gets is a flaccid dig at American nationalism that punctuates the end of the movie. Where Verhoeven had a little to say but said it loudly, Padilha wants to say a lot, but mostly just mumbles.
Making matters worse, the intervening two-plus decades haven’t really added much to RoboCop. Instead of a man in a plastic suit, we get a man in an awkward CGI suit. Instead of Peter Weller as our hero, we get Kinnaman — an actor who rivals Weller’s lack of onscreen charisma. This new iteration seems to have two concerns: cramming in-references into the proceedings at every opportunity and drawing out the plot. Murphy’s transformation into RoboCop (and thus the loss of his humanity that lies at the crux of the movie) takes about 20 minutes to set up in Verhoeven’s movie. Here, it takes at least half the runtime.
Perhaps Padilha’s greatest sin is that this RoboCop is just boring. There’s barely an antagonist and even less of a climax, while the intermittent action sequences feel like an afterthought. I’m not going to complain about the PG-13 rating, but that’s no reason to suck the air out of a movie that, at its foundation, is about a damned crime-fighting robot. How, exactly, do you not make that fun? Verhoeven’s ultraviolence always existed in the realm of comical, but at least it kept things lively, which is more than I can say about this RoboCop. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action including frenetic gun violence throughout, brief strong language, sensuality and some drug material.
Playing at Carmike 10.