I was not feeling optimistic about any reboot or remake of Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop, which is still brutally relevant 27 years on. Could anyone find a good reason to update this flick when the original still has the power to shock us today? And then this new RoboCop opens in “sunny Tehran,” where “random patrols” by OmniCorp’s mechanized warriors keep the peace as part of the U.S.’s “Operation Freedom Tehran,” which makes the good people of the city feel safe and secure, we’re told. Except we can see, during the chipper American news broadcast live from the scene, that the good people of Tehran feel nothing of the kind: They are literally terrorized.
I’m still astonished at what happens next: A few of the good people of Tehran take action to demonstrate just how unhappy they are with giant scary heavily armed robots walking their streets. Stunned, I thought: Did this movie just make Iranian suicide bombers look sympathetic? Did somebody find a reason to update RoboCop for today, as a commentary on America’s current drone warfare?
Except, no. I now wonder whether there was any intent at satire or sympathy at all in that opening gambit. Maybe it was just a reason to get some way-cool ED-209s into the action. Because the story here is about how evil OmniCorp plans to circumvent a U.S. law against using robot law enforcement on U.S. soil by putting a man into one of their EM-208s. So there wasn’t really gonna be much of an opportunity otherwise to see some geek-favorite robots play here.
But here’s the other thing: OmniCorp may be evil, but it hardly feels satirical today. Drone warfare is happening, for real right now. Privatizing a public service like the police in a major American city was scary speculation in 1987; today privatization of lots of services is a done deal. The obnoxious right-wing TV host here – Pat Novak, played by a mostly wasted Samuel L. Jackson – is nothing more than Rush Limbaugh in a better suit; there’s nothing in the least bit satirical about him as he bloviates to his audience and sings the praises of OmniCorp.
Where is the black humor any decent reboot of RoboCop should have? Unless newbie screenwriter Joshua Zetumer and director José Padilha are trying to say that America is now truly beyond satire, I see no reason for this movie to exist.
Ah, but Padilha doesn’t seem to care much about anything except staging some frenetic action scenes. Some of it we get to see through RoboCop’s head-up visual display, so it really is like watching a videogame. And so the plot seems unnecessarily convoluted: Those who just want to watch a videogame won’t care, and those who are looking for some sharp drama will be enraged. After what’s left of Detroit cop Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is shoved into the robot body by OmniCorp R&D scientist Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), one of the dumbest forced plot points I’ve ever seen is required to get the supposedly interesting debate going about how much of a man OmniCorp actually wants in its new toy.
One might, blissfully, be able to forget that this has any connection whatsoever to one of the greatest science fiction films ever made, until Zetumer tosses in, with no appreciation for sense or context, snatches of dialogue from the original film. When Murphy says, at the end of the film to a bad guy, “Dead or alive, you’re coming with me,” it means nothing: He hasn’t said it before, and it has no significance like it did for the other Alex Murphy. When another character mentions that he “wouldn’t buy that for a dollar,” it references absolutely nothing here. All it makes us think, unfortunately, is, Oh, yeah, that other RoboCop movie is awesome.
ROBOCOP (1½) • Directed by Jose Padilha. • Starring Joel Kinnaman, Douglas Urbanski, Abbie Cornish. • Rated PG-13. • 118 min. •At Century Cinemas Del Monte, Maya Cinemas, Northridge Cinemas, Cannery Row XD.