From silliness to darkness and back again, the RoboCop remake has something new, something old, and lots of stuff in between that is just bonkers.
In a tone-setting opening scene, one that evokes the absurd bombastic introduction of Starship Troopers (directed by Paul Verhoeven, who helmed the 1987 RoboCop), Samuel L. Jackson inhabits your stereotypical, fear-mongering, right-wing, bloated American TV host. In a joke that goes on for too long and returns to the well too often, Jackson’s primetime blowhard Pat Novak (Pat Buchanan crossed with Bob Novak, perhaps) champions the products of a one particular big business: the robotic police officers manufactured by OmniCorp.
Set in the year 2028, this version of RoboCop wants to lampoon as much as it wants to be serious, and evoke emotion as much as it wants to be mindlessly loud and entertaining. Novak sets up the scene with some flair: robots around the world have (apparently) helped keep people safe and eliminate crime, but the United State Congress has enacted a ban on them from roaming the streets of America.
So discussions abound about whether or not robots, while more effective at Google searches and killing things, should or shouldn’t be on the streets because they don’t have sympathy, instinct, emotions, or souls.
The Stephen Colbert-esque parody that writer Joshua Zetumer and director Jose Padilha embrace is funny and clever if not too cute and way too blunt. Because robots aren’t yet allowed in America, OmniCorp, headed by a wonderfully scene-chewing Michael Keaton, a delightfully-seedy Jennifer Elhe, and a skinny suit-wearing Jay Baruchel (who is funny every time he opens his mouth, whether he intends to be or not), seeks loopholes and public support by being selfish and greedy and terrible.There is also a mendacious Jackie Earle Haley, as a sort of weapons expert who finds comfort with robots, and who gets some of the best lines in the film.
Enter Alex Murphy, the hard-nosed, honest detective, who following a hit, ends up paralyzed and on life support. As we laugh at the slimy corporate doings of Keaton and company (they’re located in China, using quite the labor force), Murphy’s story is played straight and grave. Portrayed by Joel Kinnaman with a surprising amount of humanity, Murphy is a good cop among bad ones, with a beautiful wife and idolizing son at home. His broken body, with it’s few working parts, is enhanced by OmniCorp, but it’s not always certain what he can control, and what controls him.
Robocop can’t keep the two competing tones in balance, but both are worthy and interesting enough on their own. The immensely-talented Gary Oldman finds himself in a Jim Gordon-type role as a brilliant doctor, connecting the two threads: he’s a conflicted scientist working for an evil corporation while trying to help those in need (and he gets to offer one of those screaming pleas at which he is so great).
The elaborate allusions and metaphors that nod to security, freedom, and corporate muscle are tenuous at best, but even while RoboCop juggles a bunch of superficial ideas, there is always something to fall back upon. Usually, it’s really loud, futuristic sounding explosions and tomfoolery that may or may not involve a motorcycle.
Sure, the robo-suit costs a billion dollars or so, but it wouldn’t be as cool if it didn’t squeak as it flexed. What’s more, its assembly (and what’s underneath) makes Tony Stark’s Iron Man transformation look like something out of Power Rangers. The RoboCop duds, eventually, are sleek and black, but in one example of several offerings to fans of the original film, we get a few glimpses of the much more familiar look (there is also plenty of updated ED-209s.
Funnier and more entertaining than it probably should be, and a completely validated remake, RoboCop has its heart and mind in the right place – even if that’s all that Alex Murphy has left. Well, that and his handsome, unblemished face; what luck!