In order to enjoy the new RoboCop movie, you have to psych yourself up a little. Forget about your bleak knowledge that whatever they come up with could never be as good as the original. The 1987 version features gratuitous violence, biting satire and a vicious lack of sentimentality. It's a product of the Golden Era of 1980s cinema that simply can't be improved upon. Nevertheless, Brazilian director José Padilha gives the reboot his best shot, and hey, it's not the worst.
The action begins in the year 2028 in Tehran, where an evil corporation named OmniCorp has successfully launched an army of robotic, humanoid-looking drones into the street with the capability of expertly discerning "threats" from "non-threats" by scanning their pupils. Things are going great overseas, so why not bring these heartless killing machines to the United States to serve on our police forces?
Michael Keaton plays Raymond Sellers, one of several corporate villains. We first meet him making his case to Congress that mechanical cops are better than fleshy ones, because they don't tire, hesitate or feel bad. But the American people are on the fence. People are still into violence in the year 2028, but there's a new premium on remorse, apparently, so OmniCorp decides they need to find a way to put a man inside the machine. Where better to conduct the experiment than the closest place the U.S. has to the third world: Detroit.
Cut to Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), a nice cop working the mean streets with a loyal partner (Michael K. Williams) and a family at home. Who could forget the scene in the original when Murphy is blown to bits by maniacal street thugs? But the reboot is PG-13, so in this version he lamely gets too close to a car explosion. There's not much left of Murphy but some torso, a dangling hand and a head, making him the experiment's perfect candidate.
Gary Oldman plays Dr. Dennett Norton, a man of dubious integrity in charge of outfitting RoboCop's suit and making all the money people happy. Murphy is with Norton when he first wakes up and discovers in horror that most of his body has been replaced with menacing hardware. He panics and takes off running, which is touching and scary (I had the same reaction after dropping acid once). I found myself inordinately preoccupied with the fact that the RoboCop suit has no genitals. Nobody mentions this, not even to make a sophomoric dick joke. How will this affect his marriage?
In 1987, RoboCop wakes up as a fully functional killing machine with Isaac Asimov-inspired directives: protect the innocent, kill bad guys, some other secret agenda—you know the drill. He doesn't remember his family and in the three months since his shooting, they had the good sense to leave him for dead and move on. The first movie has no love interests and no cute little kid at home to pull on RoboCop's heartstrings. Cutting out the family is the lean, gutsy choice and part of what makes the first RoboCop so great. But they can't just make the same movie twice, so the new movie flips it around and now his wife and kid are around nagging him to be himself and remember his humanity and come home and hang out with them and stuff.
Jackie Earle Haley plays a military man who for seemingly no reason doesn't like guys who are half machine, and he and RoboCop go out into the field for training exercises that seem a lot like laser tag. "You're lucky I didn't have my gun set to kill," somebody says three-quarters into the film, a line that would have been helpful a lot earlier on as I couldn't understand how people kept getting shot but not dying.
Murphy starts out with all his faculties intact, but luckily for everyone involved still seems pretty gung-ho about law enforcement. Still, his emotions are messy and get in the way. They start tweaking his dopamine levels for optimum performance, but how long can they keep the real Alex Murphy suppressed?
The new RoboCop is about half as good as the original, which, for lack of other options in the dim months of winter cinema, makes it totally worth seeing.
RoboCop continues at the Carmike 12 and Pharaohplex.