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Paul Verhhoeven’s RoboCop is a strange beast. It’s become a cult classic because of its relentless violence, its gallows humor, and its over-the-top performances. Now there’s a remake of RoboCop, one that only preserves the skeleton of the original. Director José Padilha and his screenwriter Joshua Zetumer are a little more thoughtful about the idea of a robotic man, and explore heavy ideas like the soul and free will. But this is an action film, too, so there are protracted gun battles with all the mayhem and none of the blood.

There is a disturbing prologue before we even meet Detective Murphy (Joel Kinnaman). It’s set in Tehran, and robot sentries police the streets. A muckraking journalist (Samuel L. Jackson) explains how these machines have cut crime and have huge potential in the United States. The scene ends with several suicide bombings and the death of a child. It’s over-the-top, and I guess it’s meant to demonstrate how these machines do not provide safety, only the illusion of it. Back in the United States, Murphy is a Detroit cop who cannot be bought. A crooked cop plants a bomb in his car, and he’s comatose after it goes off. With the help of a brilliant scientist (Gary Oldman), a brilliant industrialist (Michael Keaton) puts Murphy into a robot suit. Murphy still needs tinkering, however, so the company plays fast and loose with his level of sentience.

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The most interesting thing about RoboCop is how little Murphy/RoboCop figures into the plot. He’s not a hero, exactly; he’s the conclusion of a vast corporate experiment. There are long stretches where he’s more machine than man, so we’re left with characters and their differing ethics. Jackie Earle Haley turns up as the head of robot security, and he has nothing but seething contempt for RoboCop. It’s hard to blame him: Murphy becomes an experiment that’s meant to appease American exceptionalism, an expensive one at that, and the script strips him of any personality. The only time we have sympathy for RoboCop is an early scene that builds toward body horror: I don’t want to spoil the surprise, except to say sometimes we take our corporeal limits for granted. The body horror and the subsequent tinkering are not without purpose. Zetumer’s script is genuinely curious how high-level tech executives would treat something they cannot fully understand.

If I’m spending too much time on the limits of Murphy’s conscience, it’s because the action does not have the same inventiveness. There are several scenes where Murphy drives his motorcycle and fires a seemingly endless supply of bullets, yet they’re strung together like a barely coherent video game (several shots of Murphy’s UI only enhance that feeling). The only exciting sequence is where Murphy wages full-on war with robots three times his size. He quickly identifies their clunkiness as a weakness, and uses it against them. Padilha finally remembers that sympathy occurs only when a character actually seems vulnerable, and so the action comes with a dose of  suspense.

With the exception of Murphy, the characters are defined by their agenda. This creates an opportunity to explore ideas, but the script runs into problem when Hollywood convention forces them into strict “good guy/ bad guy” molds. Keaton is a terrific actor, full of spastic energy, and the movie fails him when it puts a gun in his hand. Oldman again creates a character defined by competence and inner reserves of decency, so his character is like Jim Gordon with a lab coat instead of a badge. The only weak point is Jackson’s turn as the journalist. He does a great job, full of bluster, but his character is the wrong choice for his material. The plot is essentially an attempt to manipulate the American public into tolerating a product, and Jackson’s lack of subtlety betrays that attempt. His scenes are so plainly one-sided that they cease to be manipulative. A company like Keaton’s would use a clever marketing campaign, not a transparently pro-corporate news program that feels like Fox News on steroids.

RoboCop is Padilha’s first mainstream film, and he’s the right choice for this material. Two of his previous films, Elite Squad and its sequel, are about cops who sacrifice their humanity in order to clean the streets of Rio. This tells a similar story, except Murphy is not exactly a willing participant (not in the beginning, anyway). RoboCop ends with Murphy regaining his humanity, and leaves plenty of potential for sequels. It’s a pity, really, since the by-the-numbers action pales in comparison to the dark implications of the science fiction. This RoboCop may never be an interesting character, yet he creates an opportunity for mind-bending manipulation. Here’s hoping Padilha and Zetumer will keep asking big questions in the sequel, and maybe they’ll get that much-needed R-rating, too.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=INmtQXUXez8

To keep with our NSFW theme day, here’s a NSFW gif from the original RoboCop -ed.

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And Cale asked we add this still:

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