No-one can make a Paul Verhoeven film except the man himself. The Dutch mad genius made almost as many movies in Hollywood as his native Netherlands, to very high, low, and middling results. All but one of his English language films have been followed up by sequels/remakes (even Showgirls), or in the case of RoboCop, sequels, spin-offs, and a remake. None of which were made by Verhoeven.
Even though the RoboCop character and premise has been utilised liberally since the original’s debut in 1987 (films, live-action and animated TV series, comics etc.), the announcement that it was getting the inevitable big-budget, high-profile reboot treatment was still greeted mostly with groans. The further knowledge that it was going the child-friendly PG-13/12A route seemed to dash any remaining hope for the project.
RoboCop 2014 has not turned out to quite be the sacrilegious debacle one might have feared. It’s mostly an efficiently handled if unremarkable film, that doesn’t dance all over the memory of the original. However a film shouldn’t be given a free pass at this point just for not being as terrible as we thought it would be. If this RoboCop were an original property, we wouldn’t all be embracing it with open arms either. If you’re going to remake a beloved film, simply being inoffensive is not enough.
To be fair, it’s not like the film just does a beat-for-beat do-over either, there are some original ideas in there, and it’s trying to do its own thing with the character. The primary difference being that in this case, Officer Alex Murphy retains his conscious throughout, always knowing who he is. It’s an angle that creates a couple of new concepts for the film to explore, which work well during his impressive, if overlong training/testing sequences, but unfortunately also necessitate the inclusion of many drippy exchanges with his tearful wife and child.
RoboCop 2014 does get about as violent as a PG-13/12A movie can be, but this still far below the cartoonish excesses of the source, mostly piling on the numbers of bloodless shootings typical of modern blockbusters. Everything is toned down, it saves itself some trouble by never attempting to directly re-create any key moments, but the whole thing is far less memorable. The climactic action set-piece is a very standard and unimpressive affair. Only the mildly disturbing reveal of just how much of Murphy’s ‘organic material’ is still there lingers in the mind.
I’m not sure whether the blame for this RoboCop’s weakness in delivery lies at the feet of Brazilian director José Padilha (Elite Squad), or the studio executives who were probably reining him in, but a lot of the material feels compromised. Also, even the best modern reboots like Rise of the Planet of the Apes feel the need to unwisely drop in dialogue references to the original, and each occurrence feels like a misstep. This is no exception, it even re-uses the theme tune as well.
People don’t just love the original RoboCop because it was a thrilling and excessive action movie though, it was also smart, subversive and wittily satirical. This reboot doesn’t do away with any attempts at comedy or satire, but here is where it really feels watered down. Bookending, and appearing a couple of times within the story, are segments from a future political commentary show called The Novak Element, in which host Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson) angrily criticises a bill which bans robotic law enforcement in the United States. Drones are on patrol everywhere else in the world now, an early, Tehran-set scene demonstrating this is one of the film’s strongest moments. Novak has the aggressive pomposity of a Fox News host, and Jackson absolutely nails the mannerisms, but the film fails to communicate exactly where Novak’s political alignments lie, which sounds like a deliberate studio move to avoid alienating any potential audience members. Verhoeven had no such qualms.
There are a lot of good actors in this (bar the ever-grating Jay Burachel), and Michael Keaton, Gary Oldman, and Jackie Earle Haley all get decent roles as a powerful CEO, conflicted scientist and cynical military commander respectively, but new leading man Joel Kinnaman makes little impression in the title role.
RoboCop is unusual for a remake, it doesn’t erroneously tarnish the original, slavishly re-do it, ignore it, or content itself with simply neutering it. It tries to retain the source’s core themes and add its own ideas to them; the problem is they’re just not handled very well. When’s the Starship Troopers remake coming then?