Robocop Black

If Jose Padilha‘s RoboCop wasn’t called “RoboCop,” it would be much easier to embrace. While this remake evokes and/or borrows many designs and big ideas from Paul Verhoven’s 1987 original, the meat of the story is almost totally unique, giving it the feel of a completely different movie. Obviously, that was the point, but by simultaneously differentiating itself while also staying beholden to the original, the film is burdened with the weight of expectations and analysis of the original film.

That burden aside, Padilha has made a pretty solid movie. It has a lot to say and it delves into facets of the Alex Murphy character we’d never seen before. The story is global; the influence of media and government plays a huge role. There’s some really intense action, which takes a back seat to myriad points of social commentary and morality. Those points give the film a seemingly unique voice, but it doesn’t work as a cohesive piece. Padilha has brought together a strong cast with beautiful music and camerawork to make a movie much better than one would expect, but nowhere near what you’d hoped.

Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is a loving family man and detective who ends up in critical condition after the arms dealer he’s investigating tries to blow him up. The timing works out perfectly for the robotics company Omnicorp, which has been trying to figure out a way to get the American people on board with the idea of robotic law enforcement. Omnicorp has robots policing the entire world, but can’t deploy in America as Americans don’t trust robots to make life or death decisions. They want a human element. Enter the burned and battered body of Alex Murphy.

As you can tell from that description, the spine of the original RoboCop story, featuring a near-dead cop and a power-hungry robotics corporation, is fleshed out with a mostly new narrative. The whole movie has that off-putting back and forth. As the story moves along and we see the motivations of Michael Keaton‘s CEO character Raymond Sellars, or Gary Oldman‘s Dr. Norton (who puts Murphy in the suit), the more we are left to contemplate the emotional and social consequences of the plot. Plus, unlike the original RoboCop, Kinneman plays a much larger role than his counterpart Peter Weller. By bringing that character into the foreground — face, emotions, family and all — Padilha really wants us to think about free will and the psychological damage suffered by Murphy.

Unfortunately, those ideas are muddled as they’re happening concurrently with about four other stories. Murphy’s wife (Abbie Cornish) and son play a large role. A journalist played by Samuel L. Jackson is prominent, as are an evil robotics expert played by Jackie Earle Haley, and a marketing guru played by Jay Baruchel. Each actor is good in their role, but these supporting turns definitely cloud what the movie is really trying to say.

The action that’s peppered in between all these grand ideas is very much in the mold of Padilha’s old films. It’s all hand-held, close-quarters, and intense; those are among the best sequences in the film. But oddly, they’re totally overshadowed by the film’s themes and that removes most of their fun. Embracing and getting swept up in the action is difficult because it’s not balanced with the other ideas the film is trying to convey. Padilha is really trying, but ultimately the screenplay by Joshua Zetumer never quite settles on what it wants to be.

RoboCop has a lot going for it. Big ideas, good action, and an admirable desire to be something the original film was not. In that aim, it’s partially successful. In a way, the biggest thing holding it back is actually being called “RoboCop.” It’s so dead set on being different and more visceral than the original film, yet is still beholden to its tropes. Good ideas get lost in bad ones and it a bit of a mess. An occasionally entertaining and thought-provoking mess, but a mess nonetheless.

/Film rating: 6.5 out of 10

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About the Author

Germain graduated NYU's Tisch School of the Arts Cinema Studies program in 2002 and won back to back First Place awards for film criticism from the New York State Associated Press in 2006 and 2007.

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