Joel Kinnaman is pretty freaked out that he's taking over Peter Weller's role in the redo of "RoboCop." Credit: Columbia Pictures
'RoboCop' Director: Jose Padilha Stars: Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman Rating: PG-13 2 (out of 5) Globes
With remakes, there typically come those times when the new film has to do its own version of the first picture’s big set pieces and moments. Whether it flubs them or not, the viewer is invariably forced to recall the previous entity, perhaps even fondly. The 1987 Paul Verhoeven original “RoboCop” is practically perfect, so it wouldn’t behoove the new redo to resemble it at all. For whatever it’s worth, it almost doesn’t. It knows it can’t beat the original, so it creates an entirely original story that’s also about android cop running amok in a dystopian (or dystopian-er) Detroit under the sway of an evil corporation.
The differences can be huge. Verhoeven’s hard-R rating (after several rounds of trimming) has been replaced with a hard-cut PG-13. Doomed officer Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) isn’t a mysterious newbie given a robotic personality to match his new body. He remains very much cognizant and present, as all that’s left of him — after a bomb explosion, not an epic gun-down by creeps — is a head, lungs and his right hand. (The revelation of how little remains of him is its creepiest image, albeit reminiscent of Pierce Brosnan’s less poetic fate in “Mars Attacks!”)
This time, too, the military are involved, as the main plot turns on a Halliburton-esque company (run by an only semi-gleeful Michael Keaton) trying to sneak entirely robotic drones into America’s crime-ridden streets, past the obstructions of pesky liberals.
It’s here that you can feel free to compare the two movies, and note how badly and inelegantly this one handles its political edge. The original hated companies, too — and advertising, and American excess, and just about everything — but it was much more efficient, witty and sly. One of its better jokes is how the real bad guys — namely the “old man” (Dan O’Herlihy) who runs it — is never identified by any characters as such. A pawn villain is triumphantly felled at the end, while the company gets to continue its milking of a bankrupt city for profit.
Here, it’s just kneejerk anti-corporatism and jokes about Fox News, as if no one had ever thought of that before. Brazilian director Jose Padhilla is a serious guy who makes films about Rio’s dangerous favelas; he’s too outraged to make the satire funny. It’s just leaden.
It’s a shame because, as belabored as the film can be about filing its points, this “RoboCop” does have one fairly intriguing “RoboCop” fan fiction idea: What if Murphy were self-aware? He’s mostly machine in the Verhoeven, but here the scientists — led by Gary Oldman, in “Batman” decent mode — have to grapple with how to get the best results out of a flesh and blood guy, one who greets the news of his strange salvation by asking for euthanasia.
It eventually finds ways to avoid dealing with this — some stupid, one or two actually clever — but for awhile it seems the new “RoboCop” might be more man than remake machine itself. And then comes clangy, nonsensical action and one seriously stupid ending, and sure enough one longs to rewatch a henchman getting submerged in acid.