February 12, 2014



ROBOCOP:  Watch It At Home – A Tinny Remake

This weekend’s movie openings feature no less than 3 remakes of 1980s hits, with new versions of ROBOCOP, About Last Night and Endless Love arriving at once, but it’s just as notable that all three were R-rated in their original forms, and two have now been trimmed and sanitized down to PG-13s.  That says a lot about where Hollywood has gone in the past 3 decades, as the studios cater cravenly (until Oscar season, anyway) to a target audience in its mid-teens, which still goes out to theaters, buys overpriced refreshments and provides a crucial chunk of movie revenue.  The films themselves, of course, are inevitably turned into watered-down product to qualify for the softer rating.

That dilution is most evident in the new Robocop.  Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 original, written by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner, is an exciting action-adventure, but also a savage satire of corporate mores and the public’s lust for violence and willing to sacrifice freedom for security.  The extreme bloodshed was part of the joke (the film narrowly avoided an X rating at the time), making audiences choke on their thrills.  Jose Padilha’s remake, on the other hand, follows the 2014 Hollywood formula of video game-like, virtually bloodless killings with little punch or point.

The basic storyline itself is so similar to Verhoeven’s film that screenwriters Neumeier and Miner again receive credit, along with the new writer Joshua Zetumer.  The conglomerate OmniCorp, in the person of its CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), is desperate for its own greedy purposes to place its robotic law enforcement units in US cities (it already uses them to patrol and soldier overseas), but since the public is resistant to giving armed machines the power to arrest and kill, Sellars fixes on the idea of creating a robot with a human face, a flesh-and-blood policeman all but killed whose ruined parts are replaced by machinery.  He enlists Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) to achieve this, and their subject is Detroit cop Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), who was recently blown up by a gang boss and a pair of corrupt cops in his own precinct.  In order to make the new RoboCop version of Murphy as quick and efficient as a full-fledged robot, his brain is overridden by chemicals and what amounts to a partial lobotomy–but nevertheless, Murphy’s own mind and emotions take over, determined to solve his own near-murder, reunite with his wife Clara (Abbie Cornish) and adoring son, and ultimately go after OmniCorp itself.

There are a few satiric touches in the new RoboCop, notably the introduction of a Bill O’Reilly-like fatuous news commentator for corporate interests played by Samuel L. Jackson, and a weaselly OmniCorp marketing guy played by jay Baruchel, but overall this version is much more invested in straightforward action and nuclear-family-oriented sentimentality.  On that level, it works well enough.  (It’s certainly better than last year’s dreary reboot of Verhoeven’s Total Recall.)  The Brazilian Padilha directed the Paul Greenglass-esque true-life thriller Bus 174 and the down-and-dirty thrillers Elite Squad and Elite Squad: The Enemy Within, and he knows how to keep the pace up and the bodies flying.  His style here, however, has little personality, likely a victim of the generic dialogue and the need to create so much of the action within CG monitors, and aside from the occasional powerful image (the sight of what’s physically left of Murphy after the bombing, not possible with 1987 special effects, is hauntingly disturbing)  the movie feels like it could have been directed just as well by any number of TV helmers.

The one area where this RoboCop is worthy of note is its cast.  Kinnaman, co-star of the beleaguered The Killing, is a genuine leading man with a strong presence even when his face is covered and his body is mostly CG.  Cornish pushes as much grit as anyone could into the role of The Wife (she was recently seen to much better advantage in the Discovery miniseries Klondike), and Oldman brings humanity to the mad scientist.  Even in smaller roles, people like Michael K. Williams and Jennifer Ehle turn up as Murphy’s partner and another OmniCorp executive.  Keaton and Jackie Earle Haley, as a particularly anti-robot member of the OmniCorp staff, do a nice job of making their villainy off-handed, just a matter of business.  The material may be second-rate, but everywhere you look, there’s an actor worth seeing.

Where Verhoeven’s take on Robocop felt original and subversive, this is a technocratic one that follows all the rules.  Ironically, the studios want from Alex Murphy exactly what OmniCorp does–an efficient, controllable killing machine who neither asks nor raises any questions.  That’s the state of the art in Hollywood action these days, a satire that isn’t self-aware.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."