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Fans of Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 version of Robocop cried betrayal at even the idea of a remake, let alone it being a PG-13 action movie. As a movie on its own merits, this version of Robocop is a perfectly enjoyable and amiable effort at restarting the Robocop series, even though it does not reach the same heights as the original film.
In the near-future, robot forces are essential to enacting American foreign policy and they are able to pacify any area, with a minimum need of human soldiers. While this is helpful around the world, the same robots are not allowed to be used on American soil, because of the Dreyfess Act, causing OmniCorp a problem as the American market is not open to them. To win the PR battle, OmniCorp’s CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) suggests putting a man into a machine and hires Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), an expert at making robotic limbs to lead the project.
In Detroit, Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is an honest police detective who wants to bring down Antoine Vallon (Patrick Garrow), a crime lord with corrupt members of the police in his pocket. Murphy barely survives an assassination attempt and he becomes the perfect candidate to become Robocop. Soon a debate rages on how much emotion and mental awareness Murphy should be allowed to have, as he starts to clean up the streets of Detroit. His wife, Clara (Abbie Cornish) struggles against both OmniCorp and the machine her husband has become.
There was a lot of hostility towards the reboot of Robocop and the most harden of resistance will never be won. Somehow, this reboot does manage to stand on its own two feet, building up its own world, focusing on the drama, the politics, the science and the ethics in this future. In comparison to a remake of another Paul Verhoven movie the 2014 version of Robocop sets out to tell a story and set up a world, while 2012’s Total Recall was just a relentless slog of meaningless action scenes.
Elite Squad‘s José Padilha took on the directing duties and he puts his own stamp on the series. He takes a more hyper-realistic look, similar to the Iron Man trilogy and The Amazing Spider-man, setting the movie in a world similar to our own but with more advance technology. Padilha knows he cannot compete with Verhoven on the satire that made the original Robocop so loved, so plays the reboot straight and keeps the deadpan humor to a minimum.
Despite the lack of satire Padilha and his writers do employ some political themes, namely the use of drones by the American military, how America project force around the world, while being safe within her own borders. The other major theme is the political battle between Sellars and Senator Dreyfess (Zach Grenier), how Sellars tries to win over the hearts and minds of the American public. Samuel L. Jackson is the character supplying a satirical edge as a Fox News style talk show host, using his larger than life persona to its fullest extent. Imagine Samuel L. Jackson if he was really right wing and you’ll get the idea of what he’s going for.
The other theme is to what extent Murphy is, a man or a machine and how much free will and emotion he truly has. Padilha tackles the theme of how Murphy regains his humanity much differently than the 1987 version, taking a more scientific and philosophical approach. The 1987 was stronger, as Murphy’s life and death is much more tragic, but the 2014 version was aiming to be more realistic and there is strength in the relationship between Murphy and Norton and the moral dilemma Norton suffers.
One of the biggest criticisms the reboot was it has a PG-13 rating when the original was a hard-R. Padilha is an accomplished action director in Brazil and the reboot does supply strong action sequences, using a handheld style and some shaky cam and has excellent special effects and CGI. There was a particularly stunning scene when Murphy sees how much of himself was biological after he became Robocop, showing his remaining organs.
Robocop has an excellent cast and they all provide solid performances. Oldman was the strongest performer, as his character has the biggest internal conflict, as a man who wants to do good but slowly sacrifices his ethics. Kinnaman is decent in the lead: he can handle himself in the action scenes, but Peter Weller was iconic in the original movie with his deadpan delivery and character arc.
The original Robocop is always going to be a classic action movie, yet the reboot is a solid sci-fi action film in its own right, taking the basic story of the original and letting the filmmakers make their own movie. Robocop (2014) certainly does not join the hall of shame of remakes like Total Recall (2012) and the reboot is not the worst Robocop movie (That rightfully belongs to Robocop 3).