To get the obvious out of the way, the RoboCop remake is not as good as the 1987 Verhoeven original. It’s not even close. This isn’t surprising, considering that Paul Verhoeven’s film remains an undisputed masterpiece of prescient, lurid satire and ultraviolent sci-fi action, a glorious pop conflation of the narratives of Frankenstein’s monster and Jesus Christ. José Padhila’s 2014 version is, however, better than might be expected for a sanitized, rebranded product built to turn a cinematic classic’s name recognition into its weight in franchise gold. Which still doesn’t make it a very good movie, just one that has the moving parts of a good movie, quite aptly.
A remake should be judged on its own merits, but RoboCop cannot escape the shadow of its predecessor because it is, in a way, engaged in a dialogue with it. To its advantage, it’s not just a regurgitation of the former film, offering an at-times thoughtful adaptation of Edward Numeier and Michael Miner’s original screenplay. It’s almost admirable in how much it wants to mimic its parent’s achievements, providing echoes of the original’s (still highly relevant) satire with choral snippets from Samuel Jackson’s hard-right Fox News-style pundit Pat Novak, images of a US-occupied, drone and robot-patrolled Tehran, and RoboCop’s positioning as a corporate marketing scheme to get a bill passed that would allow multinational Omnicorp to put its automated soldiers on the streets of America as a highly profitable police force.
But all this loaded thematic content is defanged from the start, because this is, as the filmmakers well know, a multimillion-dollar studio blockbuster whose prime directive is garnering a profit at the box office, not providing the unabashed, go-for-the-jugular satire of the original. There’s no real follow-through on any of these hints at political relevance except for the fact that they’re left there as food for thought. One can only imagine how much gutsier this film would have been if it had made the new RoboCop an Iranian police officer resurrected by the American military-industrial machine in its intriguingly disturbing vision of occupied Tehran, but I digress.
Padhila’s RoboCop does better when it’s focusing on Murphy’s personal battle at accepting his new cybernetic existence instead of trying to match the more ambitious framework of the original’s hyper-stylized, comic-book influenced satire (the original remains the best adaptation of 2000 A.D.’s unhinged Judge Dredd comics to date). Joel Kinnaman’s pre-robotic Alex Murphy is dead in the water as a character, with no personality to speak of. But after Detective Murphy is nearly dispatched by a crime boss and turned into a crime-fighting cyborg, Kinnaman’s performance becomes more affecting, his laconic sadness conveying the terror of a man trapped in a bad dream (Murphy’s first glimpse of himself under his robotic body recalls the nightmarish shot of supervillain Cain’s living remnants staring out of a tank in Irvin Keshner’s RoboCop 2). Peter Weller’s memorable turn as Murphy/RoboCop can’t be beat, but Kinnaman offers a respectable take.
But nowhere is the new RoboCop’s compromised nature more evident than in its action-movie components, which are nothing if not tailored for the younger demographic the film’s crowd-pleasing PG-13 rating opens up. The action sequences are bloodless, hyperactive, and look imported from an unimaginative video game, with copious first-person shots blurred with muzzle-fire and constant motion, and CG-aided flights across the action like a floating cam in a multiplayer death match. There is none of the alternately ludicrous and disturbing visceral punch of the original’s biblical carnage, nor the cinematic clarity of Verhoeven’s action set-pieces (such as the menacing yet hilarious solidity of the giant robotic ED-209 peacekeepers, here become sleek CGI foes).