With the early part of any year turned into a dumping ground for fare that the studios have little faith in or that is meant for the tots of the world, film lovers take their delights where they can get them. Even if it means accepting into your heart an overheated remake of an action-packed late 80s sci-fi allegory of unchecked corporate greed and totalitarianism. At every turn, it feels absolutely certain that this new Robocop is going to blow up in the faces of director Jose Padilha and screenwriter Joshua Zetumer. Yet again and again, they manage to nimbly avoid disaster and find a way to update the dystopian tale for our drone-striken surveillance state.
The particulars are pretty much the same: Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), a police officer unbowed by the influence of organized crime elements, is subject to a car bomb that leaves him missing limbs and burns over 80% of what’s left of his body. His cause is taken up by Omnicorp, whose Steve Jobs-like CEO (Michael Keaton) is looking for a symbolic figure that will help warm Americans to the notion of robot law enforcers. Stripped down to his barest of body parts — head, heart, and lungs — the cop is given a cyborg body and is set loose on the streets of Detroit to mete out justice.
As with the film’s titular lawman, everything wrapped around the story has been updated from Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 original to a sleek, technologically-advanced futurism. The new Robocop is able to access CCTV feeds from around the city, while also being subject to huge drops in dopamine by his tech guru overlords so as to make him more docile. And, of course, there’s the big training shootout with a variety of gun-toting robots and a loudmouth military man (Jackie Earle Haley).
The chief grand theme of this new Robocop is free will. Murphy’s big training session spells out that the system has him thinking he’s in control, when in fact it’s the system dictating his actions. By the second act, he’s fighting his programming, looking to protect his long-suffering family and solve the crime that landed him in his metal carapace. But while it often loudly amplifies larger themes (thanks mostly to Gary Oldman’s work as the doctor behind the cyborg technology), Robocop doesn’t get preachy. Instead, its messages are merely there to support a wealth of solid action sequences — particularly a warehouse showdown between uber-Murphy and the crime lord that ordered his death early in the film, lit only by the sparks of the guns going off around them.
As fun as it is, Robocop is hardly the dystopian near-masterpiece of its source material. There was little chance it could be. Zetumer does the story no favors by pushing heavy on the schmaltz button with relation to Murphy’s family, which seems designed merely to give audiences a more personal reason to root for his victory. In the larger scheme of the film, it’s an unnecessary gesture. Audiences already have the archetypal hero taking center stage. Why fill the corners of the screen with emotional flotsam?