Robocop. The future of law enforcement movies or a flailing torso with all the useful bits cut off?
Ever since I heard that Robocop was receiving a reboot twenty seven years after it’s first cinematic outing my feelings have been mixed. Firstly, twenty seven years! Can it really be that long ago?! Secondly, what kind of justice could be done to a film that brought so many iconic images and sound-bites to my generation? The iconic visual of a half man, half machine with an infeasibly large side-arm, the clever use of news bulletin cut scenes – and who can forget “Dead or alive, you’re coming with me”, “You have twenty seconds to comply” and “I’d buy that for a dollar!”?
The 1987 debut of Robocop came at a time when high body counts, violent gun fights and ultra, anti-social culture were all the rage on the big screen. I’m not condoning that kind of thing but Robocop received an 18 certification in the UK for good reason. The language was, let’s say… sweary and the violence was out there to see. How worrying then that this most recent interpretation is deemed appropriate for a twelve year old with adult supervision.
Re-booting a much loved franchise is a tricky thing to pull off. You either honour the original and stay as close as possible for a straight re-make, you take key components or ideas and come up with something new or re-imagined, or you compromise and take the middle ground. Robocop falls into the latter category and feels a little half arsed as a result.
Now, I am fully aware that many if not most cinema goers may not be old enough to have seen the original movie and for that reason consideration must be given to the fact that this will be a first time experience for some. My perspective is always going to be as a comparison to the 1987 version.
The basic premise of the film, set in the near future, focusses on officer Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman). Murphy is a family man, loves his wife and son, is loyal to his work partner (played by Michael K Williams who most will recognise as Omah from The Wire) and an upstanding officer within the Detroit police department. Having uncovered an illegal arms trade that indicts colleagues within their own police department Murphy falls victim to a car bomb attack at his home that leaves him horrifically burned and teetering at death’s door.
Omnicorp specialise in robotic law enforcement but despite success with their oppressive units and ED209 behemoths abroad have yet been able to sway public opinion and vote to allow them to implement the same methods in the US. The public’s main concern being that a faceless automaton has no feeling or free-will when asked to kill. Michael Keaton takes the role of Raymond Sellars, the head of Omnicorp and plays the role adequately without really summoning the menace you’d really expect from such a single mindedly motivated individual. Sellars devises a plan to sway public opinion and place pressure on the government to initiate a change by putting a face to his law enforcement machines. Half man, half machine, officer Alex Murphy stands out as the perfect candidate to become Robocop.
I wasn’t immediately convinced by the casting of Kinnaman as Alex Murphy. His initial screen presence was a lot more street-wise than I’d expected and his swagger wasn’t in-keeping with Peter Weller’s interpretation all those years ago. However, I warmed as the film went on especially once transformed into the titular character. The buddy element that worked so well in 1987 is all but missing from this version. Robocop works alone. Gone are the matt black squad cars that caught my imagination all those years ago and in it’s place comes an, admittedly, pretty cool motorbike that matches the now black ‘suit’. There are different variations of the suit as the film progresses. The first incarnation isn’t too far removed from that which we know and love. Personally I wasn’t offended by the change in colour which works particularly well with the red flash of light along the visor in a scene shot mostly in darkness. By the film’s conclusion haters of the new design should be won over as a likely sequel looks to take things in a different direction.
One of the stand out moments in Robocop history is the malfunctioning ED209 at a demonstration, and that famous sound-bite “You have twenty seconds to comply” (See the clip below which descends into some kind of dub-step farce following the scene’s conclusion but serves to illustrate the point). Sadly the newer, slicker ED209 units, with the exception of one scene, barely feature as anything more than background props.
If you’ve seen the trailer you’ll know that Alex Murphy utters another famous line, “Dead or alive, you’re coming with me”. Sadly it lacks the punch and significance you’d expect. That other most famous line? There’s one reference as weapon’s expert Rick Mattox (Jackie Earl Hayley) clumsily delivers a variation, “I wouldn’t buy that for a dollar”. And with that you begin to realise that this film is missing one of the key elements that really made the original film stand out. It portrayed a seedy, dark, bold and dominant underworld. A world of crime that simply didn’t care about the law. The kind of scum that made you root for the hero. This modern interpretation is no darker than an episode of Law & Order.
The stand-out performance of the film comes from Gary Oldman as Dr. Dennett Norton, the brains that made the project a reality. And this is in spite of a shaky start where Norton’s principles are swayed far too easily. Oldman isn’t the only big name in the film. Samual L Jackson gives a decidedly dubious performance as Pat Novak. His portrayal of an opinionated, right wing television presenter is a pale imitation of the tone found in the original movie. His delivery is awkwardly highlighted by how sanitised the rest of the film is.
With Robocop director José Padilha manages to provide a mediocre sci-fi action adventure. A throw away piece of entertainment. Where it fails so badly is that he takes an age to lay the foundations for what is really a simple premise. A cop gets badly maimed, he’s placed into a suit and becomes a robotic bad-ass hell bent on justice and yes, his human element is going to over-ride protocol, yes he’s going to bring to justice those responsible for his attempted murder and yes, there will be moments where it looks like he’s not going to make it through. There can be some emphasis on his family and the emotions associated with that but where the original mostly ignored that side of things this version embraces it without any real conviction.
For me Robocop is a bit like an old beloved jigsaw puzzle. You’re very familiar with it, you know how it should go together but you’ve lost a few pieces over the years and the whole picture isn’t as clear as it used to be. Then someone has a bright idea. Let’s get rid of a few more pieces, cram some new ill-fitting bits in and hey presto! You’ve got a brand new end product. It’s a bit like the old one but somehow not quite as good as it used to be.
Robocop is in cinemas now. Those new to the franchise may enjoy the film more than I did. Personally I can’t help comparing to a much loved moment in my movie watching history. I’d be interested to hear the thought of others in the comments below.