‘RoboCop’ (2014) review: Underneath that hard (robotic) exterior

‘RoboCop’ remake suffices, though ultimately unneeded

I’ll be the first to admit I’d had no particular stake in this remake. The original “RoboCop,” released in 1987 (a year before my birth), found itself in a country where Ronald Reagan was still president and Communism still seemed a fierce enemy, was created for the world of my father.

The 1987 version, directed by Paul Verhoeven, highlighted and lampooned a surveillance-happy Establishment and was snarky with its subtext, even if the acting was tremendously awful and the action typically stock. Both these strengths and weaknesses, though, offer director Jose Padilha (“Elite Squad”) the ability to run with the good and ditch the bad.

For the most part, and most likely to the surprise of fans of the original, that’s exactly what he did.

In taking a new tact on the popular material, Padilha manages to wrestle victory from the jaws of much-anticipated defeat. Using modern-day politics at its backdrop, “RoboCop” takes aim at a multiple of targets: a ever-increasing military state, corruption, compliant media and corporate greed. All of this happens as subtext prods at money in politics, drone warfare and cable-news talking figures.

For those familiar with the original, the premise hasn’t changed much. Detroit Cop Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman this time around), left nearly destroyed after being attacked in the line of duty, is rebuilt as a crime-fighting cyborg by OmniCorp, a gigantic corporation seeking to use the city’s crime problems to make some money.

Crooked officials still loiter everywhere, which leaves our hero to find his way through this viper’s nest, and his humanity, lost in transformation.

You have to give the remake this much credit: The action in this version is much more impressive, thank to some well-cast choices in Gary Oldman and Michael Keaton. Oldman plays compromised biomechanics genius Dr. Dennett Norton, Keaton the CEO of OmniCorp Raymond Sellars. The battle between these two men, concerning ethics and money and influence and reality, serves as the story’s drive.

Their issue: Sellars sees dollar signs when he looks at the work Norton has done in reconstructing Murphy from near-death. Norton, however, initially wants nothing to do with the militarization of his work. That tune changes — slowly, painfully — as the movie progresses, showing how influence can corrupt even the most noble among us.

These themes of corruption and politics (repetitive?) are well-designed, but the heart of “RoboCop” veers into anall-too familiar question: Just what does it mean to be human? When we see what truly remains of Murphy (warning: that reveal scene is stunning graphic), you can’t help but think of Frankenstein’s monster.

Still, performances aside (including Samuel L. Jackson’s fantastic take as a crazed right-wing TV political host), “RoboCop” and its dystopian view on an American future comes across as distant and unrelateable. It doesn’t help that the 2014 version more or less drops the B-rated charm of the original, instead getting straight to the point when it matters. Just as when Murphy is deprived of his emotions in order to make him a better crime fighter, it just feels a bit unnatural.

In the end, “RoboCop” is better than it deserves to be. Skillful acting, bountiful action and a good pace (even if the movie was probably 30 minutes too long) combine to make up for the simple fact that this rendition does little to improve upon its predecessor. It brings into question the necessity of a remake, but seeing RoboCop take down an entire criminal outfit in that sleek, black armor goes a long way in validating its existence.

Three “We can rebuild him!” stars out of five.

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Joel Kinnaman stars in Columbia Pictures' "Robocop." (Photo credit; Kerry Hayes/Columbia Pictures/MCT)

Joel Kinnaman stars in Columbia Pictures’ “Robocop.” (Photo credit; Kerry Hayes/Columbia Pictures/MCT)

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