The plight of the well-meaning reboot is unenviable. How far it can stray from the original and still please the superfans—or, harder, how it can win over those who disliked the first—are questions that plague the marketing department as soon as the green light goes on. The recent Dredd sank under its lackluster campaign, though it was a sharp, dark and unrelenting examination of action-movie ultraviolence and the rotten system of criminalized poverty which produces the kind of crime that requires summary judgment down the barrel of a gun.
Enter RoboCop. The 1987 original is an iconic slice of science-fiction pulp, filtering its satire of corporate sleaze and militarized gentrification through the travails of cyborg Alex Murphy (Peter Weller), reanimated after death, whose directive to clean up Detroit reveals citywide corruption, and—more importantly—that there’s still a man in the machine. The handy collection of dystopian action tropes was later deployed with varying degrees of success in two sequels, a television series and an animated TV show, which presumably tamped down on the body count.
This RoboCop, which falls somewhere between reboot and reimagining, does the same. It’s a take more interested in the concepts than the shootouts, though director José Padilha draws often from his source material. The themes of the original movie play out here in a fictional TV show, The Novak Element, where blowhard host Pat Novak preaches mechanized drones as a crime deterrent at home as well as abroad. And abroad they are, since this RoboCop is also more concerned with the globalization of the American war machine than any intra-city troubles: police drones murdering an Iranian child on live TV during a “safety inspection” proves the need for a human touch that will curry American public favor, and Alex Murphy gets built out in the OmniCorp R&D lab in China. But it’s also concerned with more personal questions. This RoboCop spends so much time at that lab because it’s occupied with the degree to which man and machine can coexist before one has to win.
That puts a lot of pressure on old Alex Murphy, but Joel Kinnaman is up to the task. Making good use of the same coiled-inward tension he brought to AMC’s The Killing, his Alex is subtler than his predecessor and sells both a bone-dry sense of humor and overwhelming grief. His struggle for composure upon seeing what remains of his biological body makes a meal of a single scene, and the camera lingers brutally on his attempts to numb himself, his throat and lungs working overtime inside their glass cases. It’s a haunting glimpse of body horror by way of Cronenberg and del Toro, and the claustrophobia of his medical locks—and the suit itself—echoes every time Alex is shut off for disobeying, smashing to the ground in a tangle of limbs, or when Dr. Norton (Gary Oldman) casually adjusts his battle efficacy by dropping his dopamine until he feels nothing at all.
Amid all the discomfiting, glass-case scenes of blood cleansing and discussions about how much humanity is left after battle functions are optimized, the action set pieces feel somewhat perfunctory. Still, when Alex does enter the trenches, the chaotic immediacy of handheld camerawork smartly replaces the thousand-squib face-offs of the original, and Kinnaman sails through it all, almost preternaturally sleek in his suit, particularly in a stylish raid against criminal Antoine Vallon, conducted in the dark and illuminated largely by bursts of gunfire.
It’s unfortunate that Kinnaman is made to carry so much of the film on his shoulders, given the number of excellent actors present but barely accounted for: Michael K. Williams as the obligatory wounded partner, Abbie Cornish as the obligatory loyal wife, Jackie Earle Haley as the obligatory military hardliner, Jennifer Ehle as the obligatory corporate ice-queen, and Marianne Jean-Baptiste as the obligatory no-nonsense chief of police. Michael Keaton does everything he can with Sellars, the smarmy Omnicorp CEO who issues decrees from his glass penthouse while power-sitting beneath comically oversized art, but there isn’t much breathing room there, either.
And here’s where RoboCop loses a little luster; it is, by and large, too earnest for satire. Samuel L. Jackson’s faux-affable intensity makes an inspired Novak, turning his inherent magnetism into an insidious reminder of the effectiveness of conservative media, and Oldman nicely builds in parallel to Alex, gaining humanity as Alex becomes more beholden to his mechanics. But they’re largely alone in the moral gray area; otherwise, those who start evil stay evil, those who start good stay good, and no matter how much Alex struggles with his humanity, his wife is always waiting to welcome him back, a domestic angel with little inner life. The sidelining of prodigious talent and concepts puts an unfortunate drain on the third act, which becomes a dutiful cleanup of plot points more than the struggle of free will against corporate ownership. It’s a movie that strains to be bleak but can’t, at the last moments, follow through.
Still, this RoboCop does a yeoman’s work rebooting a franchise while shifting both focus and tone, and it carries an impressive cast, some body-horror food for thought, and just enough pared-down flair that it might yet edge out from under the shadow of the one that came before.