It was with a rising sense of anguish that I watched the “RoboCop” remake. I have seen hateful cover versions of “Psycho,” “Straw Dogs,” “Lolita,” “Arthur” and “The Wolfman” mangled by greedy studios and uninspired filmmakers. None of that matched my dismay at this act of vandalism.
The inspired 1987 original was a savage satire of all the social forces turning us into automatons and humanoids. I would advise anyone with fond memories of Paul Verhoeven’s movie to cross the street and avoid seeing this flimsy facsimile.
The film opens in a near-future news program with Samuel L. Jackson as the opinionated host. He propagandizes on the merits of a fully mechanized police force patrolling America’s cities, an idea met with much public skepticism. A remote news crew shows bigfoot robots on the pacified streets of Tehran. Predictably, things do not go well.
The films many, many opening chapters detail the efforts of military contractor Omnicorp to overcome its political opponents in Washington. Director Jose Padilha captures the C-SPAN feel of the proceedings but doesn’t tap into the near-universal distrust Americans feel toward Capitol Hill. Padilha lacks Verhoeven’s comic rapport with the audience.
Back at Omnicorp headquarters, CEO Michael Keaton floats a radical idea. Wouldn’t public opinion swing his way if the machines literally had human faces? One bomb blast and several surgeries later, Omnicorp has its prototype, with Detroit detective and family man Joel Kinnaman peering out of the newer, sleeker (and focus-group-approved) robo-suit.
Padilha is a superstar Brazilian filmmaker. His superb urban crime documentary “Bus 174” and electrifying “Elite Squad” cop thrillers can’t be overpraised. And he handles the movie’s numerous shootouts masterfully, given the restrictions of PG-13 filmmaking.
But his instinct to push the story toward serious drama is misguided. The 1987 film gave us numerous colorful villains whose comeuppance was thrilling. Here they’re a colorless lot, anonymous bullet fodder. The focus here is on intimate drama. And so we get family scenes with Abbie Cornish as Kinnaman’s wife, still in love with her much reworked husband. And scenes of Gary Oldman as RoboCop’s conflicted creator debating the morality of his experiments with his test subject. The meat of the story, where Kinnaman hunts down his own would-be killers, takes forever to arrive.
In defense of those involved, I must say that no expense or effort was spared here. Misguided as it is, this is no cheap ripoff. It looks impressive. The cast is seriously talented. The script is an honest effort to address our current anxieties of total surveillance and police state overreach. But a too-solemn “Batman Begins” air hangs over the enterprise. With the farce lost, and ponderous themes of free will pushed to the forefront, the movie is somber when it should be audacious, lumbering where it needs levity. With its ruthless humor removed and a child-friendly PG-13 rating in place of a bullet-riddled R, this is a travesty of a classic. It’s not just “Diet RoboCop” or “RoboCop Lite,” it’s “RoboCop Zero.”