Joel Kinnaman as Alex Murphy / RoboCop
Gary Oldman as Dr. Dennett Norton
Michael Keaton as Raymond Sellars
Abbie Cornish as Clara Murphy
Jackie Earle Haley as Rick Mattox
Michael K. Williams as Jack Lewis
Jennifer Ehle as Liz Kline
Jay Baruchel as Tom Pope
Marianne Jean-Baptiste as Chief Karen Dean
Samuel L. Jackson as Pat Novak
Aimee Garcia as Jae Kim
Douglas Urbanski as Mayor Durant
John Paul Ruttan as David Murphy
Patrick Garrow as Antoine Vallon
K.C. Collins as Andre Daniels
Daniel Kash as John Lake
Zach Grenier as Senator Hubert Dreyfuss
Directed by José Padilha
While “RoboCop” is a decent sci-fi action flick, it lacks the dark humor, great villains, and shocking action that made the original a fan favorite.
“RoboCop” is a reboot of the 1987 film.
In the near future, drones and robots are used by the military to keep terrorists in check in overseas war zones. They are proven, lethal, and they keep human soldiers from losing their lives. Yet legislation in the U.S. prevents the OCP Corporation from selling them to police departments in American cities. Looking for a way around the law and to put a human face on their robotics, OCP CEO Raymond Sellars commissions Dr. Dennett Norton to build him a cyborg cop. The problem is that they now need a willing subject for their new product.
Their search leads them to Alex Murphy, a lone good cop amid the corrupt police department of Detroit. After running afoul of a local crime lord, he is nearly killed in an botched hit. In a last ditch effort to save his life, Alex’s wife Clara agrees to let OCP transform her husband into the cybernetic police officer RoboCop. But as OCP finds technological and political success with RoboCop, they soon find that controlling the man inside is not as easy as they thought.
“RoboCop” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action including frenetic gun violence throughout, brief strong language, sensuality and some drug material.
The 1987 “RoboCop” is one of my all-time favorite movies. It was the first R-rated film I saw on the big screen. I watched it over and over on VHS. I even stuck around for the awful sequels. And I was particularly proud that the first and second ones were filmed in Dallas and my hometown of Houston. Despite my fanboy attitude, I was very much open to seeing a reboot of the series. If it worked for Batman, it could work for RoboCop. So I went into the new “RoboCop” with an open mind. While I feel like the 1987 film is superior across the board, they got a lot right with this 2014 version.
First of all, the new version makes full use of CG technology. We see amputees using robotic limbs in a very realistic manner. RoboCop no longer just slowly lumbers around. He can run, jump, etc. thanks to CG. But the most striking use of new effects is when we get a peek at what’s left of Alex Murphy under his metallic exterior. It ends up being the most striking scene of the whole film as we see he truly is more machine than man.
Another thing they got right is the supporting cast. Gary Oldman stands out as Dr. Dennett Norton. He’s kind of like the Dr. Frankenstein of the film. He starts out with the most noble intentions, but somewhere along the way loses sight of why he started in the first place. Oldman convincingly sells the character and the otherwise outlandish premise of a robot cop. Samuel L. Jackson also brings a little levity as Pat Novak, this world’s version of Bill O’Reilly. But what’s amusing is that while the film tries to sell him as a right wing lunatic, he makes some pretty convincing arguments for the pro-robot camp. Jackie Earle Haley is cool as a robot wrangler, Jay Baruchel adds some much needed humor as a slimy marketing agent, and Michael Keaton makes a likable Steve Jobs of the Robo universe. They all ultimately form a strong supporting cast.
As for the story, tying everything into the military’s use of robots and drone ethics is a nice touch. It puts a new twist on the original film. This version also brings Alex Murphy’s wife and son to the forefront. While they were briefly explored in the first film and a little more in the second, they’re a major part of the plot here. It was a good idea, in theory.
What Didn’t Work:
Despite “RoboCop” being a well-executed film, if you’ve seen the original you can’t help but compare the two. And when you compare the two, the original is superior in absolutely every way.
Peter Weller is a much better Alex Murphy and RoboCop. In his brief time as a human on screen, he has more character and likability than Joel Kinnaman. Weller also sold the robot aspect a lot more in his motions and voice. Nancy Allen was also a much better partner as Lewis. The fact that she was a female cop made her toughness more intriguing and put an interesting twist on her relationship with Alex. There’s nothing interesting about Michael K. Williams as Jack Lewis.
The 1987 RoboCop had better villains, too. There is nobody in this remake that comes anywhere close to matching the menace of Ronny Cox as Dick Jones, Kurtwood Smith as Clarence J. Boddicker, Ray Wise as Leon C. Nash, or Paul McCrane as Emil M. Antonowsky. All of those characters had moments to shine and any one of them would be someone you’d hate to meet on the street. They’re all psychotic in their own special way and all memorable. The villains in this version are completely forgettable. Not only that, the creators actually made an Iraqi suicide bomber a sympathetic character. As the guy is strapping bombs to his chest, he says, “Remember, we’re not trying to kill anyone. We just want to die on TV.” What?? Are you kidding me?? The original film also really sold the fact that Detroit was a cesspool of corruption and crime and there was a distinct need for a robot cop. That’s missing from this remake. This new version of Detroit feels like any present day U.S. city and certainly not one that would need a $2 billion robot cop.
The original also had much needed humor which this one terribly lacks. There were so many scenes with terrific one-lines which people still quote 27 years later. “I’d buy that for a dollar!” “Dead or alive, you’re coming with me.” “Please put down your weapon. You have 20 seconds to comply.” That black humor was part of the major appeal of the original and somehow these creators completely overlooked that. This film could have easily been spiced up with some humorous dialogue, but they play it almost entirely straight.
Besides problems with the humor, there are problems with the story structure as well. This version spends way too much time in the boardroom and on the TV news show and not enough time with RoboCop out fighting crime. People paid to see RoboCop shoot people, not to see executives chatting in a glass tower or Samuel L. Jackson sending up Fox News. The original film also focused on Alex Murphy changing from a mindless robot back into a man. And as he does that, it very much becomes a revenge story and he tries to track down his murderers. It’s the basic format of a lot of Westerns. This 2014 version has Murphy start out fully aware of who he is and what is happening, then he’s slowly brainwashed into being a controllable robot. That ends up being a lot less entertaining since he becomes less likable and relatable as the story progresses. His relationship with his wife, which should have been a major romantic angle of the film, also never really takes root either.
The action in the first “RoboCop” was better, too. A lot of that is because it was R-rated and they could kill people in graphic and comedic ways. We saw rapists shot in the crotch, villains dipped in acid, and executives blown into Swiss cheese. We also saw Alex Murphy die in a much more shocking and violent way, and that made the audience a lot more sympathetic to his character and more emotionally invested in his quest for revenge and/or justice. In this version, he’s killed by an exploding car. That’s pretty boring. Now I respect the creators for trying to create a PG-13 movie. It’s a wise business move and I have to admit that my sons who are 9 and 12 desperately want to see “RoboCop.” But that R-rated violence was a major part of the appeal of the original, and it’s lost here.
And while the visual effects of the original were more primitive, they had a lot more character. The ED-209 in the 1987 version was a heck of a lot more intimidating. Its design, motion, and animal sound effects made it utterly scary. The ED-209 robots in this version completely lack any menace. The design of the RoboCop suit in the first film was superior as well. The design gave him more of a robotic feel and the fact that he was slow and lumbering helped sell the fact that he was a walking tank. While the new version goes through several iterations, the original design remains the standout. And while they gave the new RoboCop one human hand as a sign of his lingering humanity, it makes no practical sense whatsoever. (Then again, neither does exposing his face but I can ignore that.)
Finally, I’ll add that this new “RoboCop” makes too much use of the shaky cam.’ The camera is shaking in action scenes to the point where everything is a blur and you can’t see what’s happening. I got motion sick at one point. The camera even shakes when Alex and his wife have a quiet conversation in the kitchen. It’s simply too much.
The Bottom Line:
As a sci-fi action movie, “RoboCop” is decent on its own, but the moment you start comparing it to its predecessor, it becomes a bit of a disappointment. Maybe if they break new ground in a sequel they’ll have better luck.