Directed by Jose Padilha
Starring Joel Kinnaman, Abbie Cornish & Gary Oldman
I should be open and upfront with you, reader. This is not a good remake of RoboCop, nor is it a good film in its own right. It is a capable film, and it has its moments of brilliance, but mostly it is a mess- disappointing to those who love the original, and boring for those who are seeing it with fresh eyes. That this would be the case should have been clear to most from seeing the first trailer, or even earlier, from seeing the new ‘darker is better’ RoboCop suit.
It wouldn’t be charitable of me to ignore the fine points of this film though. For one, it showcases Jose Padilha’s skill at creating and communicating high octane action sequences. This much should be obvious to those who’ve seen the Elite Squad movies, but given a budget to build on, Padilha really delivers the goods here. A pleasant surprise is his light touch with comedy, as this RoboCop at least attempts to inject satirical humour into its grimdark mess. This is backed up by some convincing performances: Oldman, as scientist Dennett Norton, proves his skill at making even the worst dialogue at least seem convincing, and Joel Kinnaman, despite being given little to do, provides a stoic and vengeful Murphy inside the suit. And the suit- well, despite everyone’s misgivings about the design, taken on its own it’s rather good; granted, he looks a little like Daft Punk’s angsty cousin, but the redesign is capable and menacing.
These high points, however, are marred by the incompetence displayed by much of the film. I tried to distance myself from the original in providing these comments, but I think the film will seem dull even to those new to the franchise. For one, Norton seems to be a far more dynamic and interesting character in this film than Murphy. That’s not a problem in and of itself, but it is when Norton’s not on-screen for much of the climax; as we should be focusing on Murphy, and his personal journey, leading to an (inevitably) explosive climax.
The finale falls flat, due in part to a pretty reduced screentime for the titular RoboCop. This isn’t the fault of the actors- Kinnaman and Abbie Cornish, playing his screen wife here, do their best to inject some passion into the limp script, and emote the hell out of their scenes, but with only two scenes together, it’s hard to get behind their relationship and its motivation for Murphy. Ultimately, the film just asks us to take it as read that Murphy’s love for his family overcomes all the odds against him. Where the script works against the actors and director here, it’s hard to imagine a new audience being drawn in by these characters.
Another problematic element is the humour. While the comedic sequences themselves work well, particularly those with Samuel L Jackson’s Pat Novak- a brash, checkered-suit-clad pulpit-pounding TV host- the rest of the film fails to live up to them. One might hope that Padilha, an outsider like Verhoeven, would be able to match the savageness of the original’s humour; but it seems he can only do so in strictly delineated comedy sequences, like the Novak Element segments. The intertwining of satire within the body of the film, so much a part of the lifeblood of the original RoboCop, is absent here, and this feels like part of an overall attempt to make the film more ‘serious’. There are moments where this is poked at- the focus-group-obsessed Jay Baruchel character in particular- but this in itself is problematic. Rather than satirising these elements fully, at best this merely rams home the fact that we’re watching a movie cynically made to satisfy those same elements. Here, the most generous interpretation of the film must be that Padilha, aware of how the film is part of the corporate machine it attempts to parody, is deliberately including elements that mock the ‘creative’ process his work was subjected to. But unfortunately, at no point does Padilha seem to have enough control to really convince me of this. The wild switching between full-on comedy farce in the Novak segments and supposedly dramatic emoting by Kinnaman, Oldman and Cornish fails to cohere into a whole, instead offering an uneven tonal mishmash.
My hopes for this film are twofold. Firstly, I hope it gets Kinnaman and Padilha more work. Kinnaman’s clear charisma and skill with character work are wasted on a script of this standard, and Padilha’s flourishes of brilliance in action sequences are badly served here. The fear is that this film will tarnish Padilha’s reputation, in the same way that Gavin Hood (director of the excellent Tsotsi) lost all credibility after a studio-dominated shoot on X-Men Origins: Wolverine. In an age where James Gunn is getting the reins of a multi-million dollar superhero movie, it might have been hoped that studio executives had learnt to respect the talent brought to them by filmmakers outside the mainstream; this remake of RoboCop seems to put paid to that fantasy. My second hope is that this film will inspire more to see the original RoboCop, a film which may- with the downfall of Detroit in real life- be more relevant now than ever before. At the start of this film, a tantalising snippet of the original RoboCop’s brilliant, bombastic theme music is played; at best, we might look on this film as a gateway for more people to experience the brilliant original from which it takes so much, but is unable to better.