DIRECTED BY Jose Padilha
STARS Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman
Joel Kinnaman in RoboCop (Photo: Sony)
There are basically two ways to approach RoboCop, a movie I wouldn't buy for a dollar even on picture-perfect Blu-ray.
Obviously, the first is to compare it to its 1987 predecessor; just as obvious, the second is to treat it as its own entity. The results? On its own, it's merely average; in comparison, it's close to awful. Either way, most viewers will justifiably be feeling a fair amount of rage against the machine.
Paul Verhoeven's '80s effort is a sci-fi gem that has only grown in stature over the ensuing years. Pulling no punches in either its violent set pieces or its satiric riffs, the picture casts Peter Weller as Alex Murphy, a Detroit cop who, after being blown away by criminal scum, is transformed by a major conglomerate into RoboCop, a metallic law officer who eventually finds himself fighting white-collar corruption as much as he's taking down thieves, murderers and rapists. The new version, which marks the English-language debut of Brazilian director José Padilha (Elite Squad and Bus 174, both excellent) and the screenwriting debut of Joshua Zetumer, sticks with the basic outline but veers off in many unexpected ways. That's actually a commendable approach — a completely faithful remake runs the risk of being another atrocity on the order of Gus Van Sant's ghastly Psycho update — but when none of the changes are an improvement over anything in the original, then clearly there's trouble in New Detroit.
Gone is practically all of the pitch-black humor (remember those hilarious commercials and newscasts?), with the nyuks coming solely from the presence of Samuel L. Jackson as a FOX-styled TV personality. Also missing are ample vignettes of RoboCop in crime-busting mode, whether shooting a would-be rapist in the penis or hurling a would-be thief across a convenience store. Instead, this new picture gets bogged down in one numbing scene after another, most centered around RoboCop's attendant doctor (Gary Oldman), his brilliant creator (Michael Keaton) and his mourning wife (Abbie Cornish). These are all cardboard characters bereft of personality or depth; the only person who makes any sort of impression is Jackie Earle Haley, playing the new character of a gun specialist rubbed the wrong way by R-Cop. Compare this thin roster to the original, where in addition to having a more sympathetic hero (Weller displays far more heart than this version's colorless Joel Kinnaman), a cooler partner (Nancy Allen's Anne Lewis > Michael K. Williams' Jack Lewis) and a strong gathering of thugs (Ray Wise, aka Twin Peaks' Leland Palmer; Paul McCrane, aka Emil, The Incredible Melting Man), the film features not one, not two, but three fantastic villains in Ronny Cox's Dick Jones, Kurtwood Smith's Clarence Boddicker and Miguel Ferrer's Bob Morton.
But let's forget the comparisons for a moment. Folks who wouldn't know RoboCop from Paul Blart: Mall Cop will find the film to be a particularly joyless exercise, arid in the extreme. Aside from Jackson's shtick, the only laughs are unintentional, fostered by the sequences in which we see Murphy stripped of his Robo-armor: nothing left but face, right hand and a pulsating chest of glop. There's occasionally a memorable line, but of course it's one clumsily imported from the 1987 model: "I'll buy that for a dollar!" or "Dead or alive, you're coming with me!" Other classic quips failed to make the cut, including one that I'd personally like to direct to the folks responsible for this fiasco: "Bitches, leave!"