It can be fascinating watching history work its magic on conventional wisdom. Take, for example, the case of Paul Verhoeven, the director of the original Robocop. As is true for so many purveyors of genre pleasures, Verhoeven was respected only grudgingly, if at all, during his creative heyday. But that hasn’t stopped modern remakes of his films to be made — and with that a revisionist take on his cache. In 1990, when Verhoeven’s original Total Recall was released, The New York Times described him as “much better at drumming up … artificial excitement than he is at knowing when to stop,” and that “any audience may wind up repelled and exhausted.” By the time the Total Recall remake rolled around in 2012,the NYT was dismissing the new version by comparison to the original’s “garish, perverse energy.”
Verhoeven’s 1987 Robocop was also far from universally hailed as a classic in its own time — The New York Times observed that “whatever may have been in the minds of the writers … has more trouble emerging from Mr. Verhoeven’s sizzling battles than poor Murphy does from his robosuit” — yet it’s hard not to use the benefit of hindsight to note what’s missing from Brazilian director José Padilha’s (Elite Squad) update. It may aim for a similar vein of satire but proves so somber in its ideas that it fails to provide any of the — what did you call it, The New York Times circa 2012? — garish, perverse energy.
Like the original, the new Robocop begins with a Detroit police officer named Alex Murphy (Swedish-born Joel Kinnaman), a good cop investigating a bad guy protected by corrupt cops. That bad guy decides to plant a bomb to get Alex off his back, leaving Murphy barely alive. But there’s hope: OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) is trying to sell the public on the idea of a mechanized police force, though public sentiment opposes enforcers without a soul. So what better compromise than a human mind with all the powers and skills of a robot — a robo-cop, if you will?
Padilha and screenwriter Joshua Zetumer find a solid foundation for their new take on the material in post-9/11 debates over liberty vs. security. They create the framing device of a rabble-rousing, conservative-leaning news program — hosted by Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson) — that frames the argument as one that could save the lives of American troops and police, not to mention law-abiding citizens. And they provide an effective conscience in Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), the scientist who develops the Robocop prosthetics and, bit by bit, allows himself to strip away Alex’s humanity with the self-justification that it supports his ongoing research. Throw in several jabs at corporate exploitation of a perpetual state of war plus outsourcing the fabrication of these supposedly “support-them-if-you’re-a-patriot” mechanized fighters to China, and you’ve got no shortage of contemporary subtext.
If that all sounds somewhat esoteric, you’re on your way to seeing the problem here. Because Verhoeven’s Robocop was content to be a B-movie — a B-movie spiked with satirical humor, but a B-movie nonetheless, a matinee science-fiction creature-feature. While we get ample time spent on Alex’s own existential crisis, the emotional torments of Murphy’s wife (Abbie Cornish), and the public relations manipulations orchestrated by OmniCorp execs, we don’t get a hell of a lot of fun. And that doesn’t necessarily require Verhoeven’s R-rated grossout-till-you-chuckle action in place of Padilha’s PG-13 bloodless battles. It simply requires embracing the fundamental craziness of your concept so that the allegory doesn’t bury all the genre delights.
The sad part is that you can find some of that wit in the margins, like the use of an iconic song to mock Robocop or the ticker crawl on the faux-Fox newscast (“Beer overtakes water as world’s most consumed beverage”). It’s just not enough to elevate what is otherwise a perfectly serviceable action movie. Padilha’s a solid enough director of set pieces, but rarely takes an opportunity for creative moments until the final showdown between Murphy and the ED-209s (Enforcement Droid Series 209, or heavily armed robots), and all the actors treat the material with utter earnestness. What we’ve learned to appreciate with a bit of distance is that Verhoeven served up a gleeful lunacy we too rarely see in packaged cinematic product. That’s the part that humanizes an otherwise mechanized contraption.