The original “RoboCop” — and here we must underscore the word “original” — worked, as so many unlikely classics do, on a number of levels. Let’s reduce that number to two, for easy contrast with its flaccid offspring, also named “Robocop” but unworthy of the mantle.
One: The 1987 “RoboCop” was a violent, vulgar, inventive, chilling, hilarious action movie. It had not one, not two, but at least three of the most memorable villains of the ’80s in the form of a couple of suits from the wicked multinational OCP and a casually ruthless street-gang leader named Clarence Boddicker (played full of venom by Kurtwood Smith, later of “That ’70s Show” fame). To get it into theaters, director Paul Verhoeven had to keep excising violence to scrape off the MPAA’s initial X rating. Still, it emerged as a touchstone, enshrined by the Criterion Collection and later dubbed the No. 14 best action movie ever by Entertainment Weekly.
The 2014 “RoboCop” occasionally springs to life with a decent action sequence, but for the most part it plays the violence incredibly safe, to the point of anesthesia. (Thank you, PG-13 rating. You’re increasingly a reminder that marketability trumps all other merits.) We begin with a Bill O’Reilly-esque Samuel L. Jackson flogging the latest advancement in U.S. peacekeeping efforts: fully robotic patrol bots that, Terminator-style, scan and assess people in lands America aims to pacify. We’re not doing it at home, though, naturally, because the idea of robots with license to push around and maybe blow away Americans skeeves us out.
An OCP-like entity named OmniCorp stands to make a bazillion bucks if they can convince Americans to replace the local gendarme with a cold-metal assassin. The CEO is Michael Keaton, a pleasant enough fellow with Francis Bacon triptychs on the walls and antifreeze in his veins. He wants to fold a human, emotions and memories and all, into a robot frame, so Americans will cotton to the image.
Luck turns his way when a Detroit cop named Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) runs afoul of a local crime kingpin who blows Murphy up. The cop’s remains are reanimated, in rather horrific form, by an OmniCorp doctor (Gary Oldman, who against all odds has still been nominated for just one Oscar, people) who, as the film progresses, winds up carrying its moral conscience.
Except no one who’s in a theater to see a movie called “RoboCop” much cares about a scientist’s reservations around creating a robot cop. Strangely, almost maddeningly, this new “RoboCop” insists on telling the story from the perspective of the corporate cronies who run the RoboCop program, when we could be hanging out with a bona fide cyborg police officer.
We want to hear more from the RoboCop himself, and this is where 2014 “RoboCop” goes painfully astray. Because, two: The 1987 “RoboCop” was deeply aware and afraid of what was happening to American cities, and still turned that into a subversive sci-fi action flick. The 2014 “RoboCop” has a terrific point to raise about the automation of the military and rise of the police state in post-9/11 America, but it can’t get out of its own way to make a cool movie.
Director Jose Padilha wants you to think deeply about the prospect of drones and killing machines intertwined with nihilistic corporate profit motive. And you totally ought to notice that, and do some hard thinking about it, because they’re coming to an airspace near you, if not a block.
If you want to write that op-ed to the Washington Post, well, then, sweet. But if you’re going to make a movie about those concerns and name the thing “RoboCop,” you really ought to make a much better movie. Because those are big, hydraulic shoes you’ve announced you’re trying to fill.