CONTAINS PLOT SPOILERS
RoboCop? More like RoboFlop! The remake none of us wanted to see. Being a big fan of the original 1987 cult classic, it was always going to be a challenge to enjoy this trumped-up excuse for a toy advert. Curiosity got the better of me after seeing the impressive special effects in the trailers. I admit to thinking that they may have done something different and fresh with the story and the concept. Sadly not. It wasn’t a great film. Even worse, it was not even a good film. All of the edgy humour, political commentary and violence of the original are nowhere to be found in Jose Padhila’s version. In fact, everything that was great about Paul Verhoven’s classic has been completely assimilated and churned out again in to a gooey paste of a movie that can only be likened to baby food.
RoboCop is a 12A which basically means that the producers decided to tone down the violence and other graphic content that was so lavishly stylised in the original. Instead they attempt to make something that older children and adults could enjoy together. But the original was not a children’s film at all. It was ultra-violent, contained scenes of a sexual nature as well as drug abuse, the dialogue was peppered with four letter expletives and the the kind of questions the film asks are more thought provoking. The subtext of the original film took a gritty and realistic look at a not-too-distant future in which American society was at breaking point. The 2014 remake is more like a superhero film than a dark, dystopian science-fiction thriller. So is there anything good to be said about RoboCop (2014)?
The story is similar to the original in that it’s central character is a cop and family man who gets horrifically wounded and is then reanimated by a huge corporation (Omnicorp) and used as a hybrid crime fighting ‘product’. The story-world is still based in Detroit again, but we start (as in Verhoven’s classic) with a TV show. Samuel L. Jackson plays political news presenter Pat Novak who has his own show; The Novak Element.
There is a similarity with the original film here in that we are faced with a challenging and biased news programme that is designed to introduce us to and represent a paranoid and extremist worldview. A world which sees the West as dominating the Middle-East with mechanised droids used as “peace-keepers”. Topical, a little dark and could be seen as critical of American military assertions and imperialism. Unfortunately, what develops here is an action sequence in which several Iranian rebels are blown to ashes by the droids. Pat Novak is trying to convince America that they should also be using robots to fight crime. Enter evil corporate oligarch Raymond Sellers (played by Michael Keaton) who is dying to get a contract with the government to police the cities of America with his robots.
The problem Sellers faces is something that Novak calls ‘Robo-phobia’. Apparently Americans have a heavy dose of it and some liberal schmucks in the government won’t let the ‘Robo Bill’ pass. Or something. By this point it was twenty minutes in and I didn’t quite care enough to give the film my full concentration. So basically, we need a hybrid. A machine that is also a human. Cluck-click, somebody’s going to get the $6,000,000 treatment and end up as RoboCop. Ok, we get it. Enter Joel Kinnaman as Detective Alex Murphy, currently hot on the heals of some dirty cops and arms dealers.
Michael K Williams, known widely as Omar from TV’s The Wire plays Lewis (Jack, not Anne this time) and he and Kinnaman have little screen time together before the inevitable happens. There is no real bond between them as there was in the original between Nancy Allen and Peter Weller. So Lewis gets shot, Murphy survives but is blown up by a car bomb after a pathetic family scene that has no realism to it whatsoever. Abi Cornish plays Murphy’s wife Clara and it is clear that their relationship is going to play a bigger role in Murphy’s character development than it did in the original.
So Murphy gets blown to bits. In the original he was horrifically shot to death by a gang of vicious killers who’s roles were key to the story arc. Each of Clarence Boddicker’s gang were developed and fleshed out, unpacking their callous evil and maniacal blood lust. This gave the audience a real chance to hate these villains with a passion and recognise the lack of humanity in their behaviour. In the remake, our modern-day Serpico is suckered by a car bomb, planted by a faceless assailant. The bad guys are a few dirty cops and couple of dudes that could’ve been extras from a TV show. Zero character development equals zero emotional investment. But, there is always Gary Oldman to save any potential turkey from a complete nose dive.
Of the three big names appearing in this film, Oldman is by far the most convincing and impressive. His portrayal of a gifted scientist employed and controlled by a huge corporation is the centre-point to the story’s dis-equilibrium. Dr. Dennet Norton is a leader in the field of robotic prosthetics and is also the Dr. Frankenstein to Murphy’s monster. As ever, the fantastic Oldman is on form, playing the scientist with a heart. A man willing to acknowledge that humanity exists within what is left of Detective Murphy after he’s had the titanium make-over.
Having woke up as a RoboCop, Murphy is understandably a bit freaked-out and decides to leg it. We immediately see a difference in the ideas of the original film in which Murphy had no memory of his past at first, they later come to him in dreams and encouragement from his former partner Lewis. As with everything else in the remake, the big ideas are skipped over and the rest is so condensed that the pace of the film is akin to watching things on fast forward. RoboCop is then put through his paces by Jackie Earl Haley who plays Mattox. After several test runs in which we see Murphy take on scores of robots and Mattox himself, he is eventually deemed ready for service. These sequences are impressive in terms of special effects and well shot action, but do little to develop the story in any significant way. The original film saw RoboCop being unleashed immediately on the city of Detroit and single handedly cleaning the streets one by one, to great effect. The remake attempts to bring us closer to Murphy’s experience of this change, how it effects his mind, his relationship to his family and his desire for revenge. All elements that were dealt with skillfully in the original but without such watered-down, formulaic contrivances which prevent the remake from ever getting off the ground on any level.
The rest of the film plays out predictably, having got his revenge on the dirty cops that set him and Omar (I mean Lewis) up, the film now needs a bad guy. Oh that’s right, Michael Keaton is in this film. The focus shifts back to the family and the lengths that evil corporations will go to in order to hide their tracks. The final scene in which everything is supposed to brought to a dramatic conclusion, ends in a disappointing exchange of shallow dialogue and the inevitable stand-off between Murphy and Sellers. The very ending leaves room that smacks of sequels and Gary Oldman asides, I did not enjoy RoboCop (2014), even as mindless entertainment.
As with all the remakes that have been thrown at us in the last decade, RoboCop (2014) is formulaic, safer and considerably blander than any of the original sequels (which were not fantastic either) and not a patch on the original film itself. More freedom with the script to develop the characters more satisfactorily and giving the audience a sense of investment would be a good start, Hollywood.
Reviewed by Greg Fisher