Director: José Padilha
Cast: Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Samuel L. Jackson, Abbie Cornish
Watch RoboCop (2014) online in the UK: Netflix UK / TalkTalk TV / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / iTunes / Sky Store / Rakuten TV / Google Play
Even if you have never seen the 1987 RoboCop, this remake feels fairly unoriginal. After all, man and mech have been trading on-screen blows (and body parts) for decades, often in futuristic cities and in the shadow of sinister corporations. Morals, consciousness, being able to run really quickly – all the big issues have been tackled. So José Padilha’s blockbuster, set in a futuristic city in the shadow of a sinister corporation, has to do a lot to stand out.
The movie follows Alex Murphy (Kinnaman), a straight policeman in a corrupt Detroit department, who finds himself blown up by a crime lord he’s close to exposing. Enter Omnicorp, whose boss (Michael Keaton) is looking for a drone unit the US public can root for, just as the US Senate vote whether to repeal a bill banning the company’s bots on home soil.
So Murphy’s remains are connected by cables and programmed to protect and to serve – and, of course, not shoot the people trying to control him. Will he realise what’s going on? Can emotions conquer code? Is he more Robo… or Cop?
There are no prizes for guessing how it all turns out, but José Padilha deserves credit for how well it does. We jump swiftly between shady boardroom discussions and automated action on the ground. Cutting repeatedly to the people RoboCop downs in the line of duty, we hear scientist Dr. Norton (Gary Oldman) explain that the software takes over during combat mode – an effective trick that undercuts the glossy set pieces with a dark tone.
Glossy is the best word to describe the whole movie. A story set in the recession-hit streets of Detroit would be fascinating to see, but Padilha opts instead to turn the town into a bland metropolis to match the shiny buildings of countless other genre entries; it looks impressive, but lacks any real punch. That instead comes from Kinnaman’s performance, who manages to jump from confusion to compassion to cold-blooded killer in the blink of an eye – no mean feat for a guy who’s only allowed to act with his face.
Abbie Cornish’s troubled wife and his hockey-loving son may not always ring true, but after impressing in Easy Money, Kinnaman sells the emotional struggle of his protagonist enough to make you care. The movie works best when it steps away from such cliches and out of the 12A comfort zone – one scene where the director lingers on the full body horror of Murphy’s hovering head, supported by superb CGI, is shocking.
It’s these touches that reveal a surprising amount of substance beneath the sheen. Keaton’s money-grabbing CEO feels coolly accurate for the 21st Century and the excellent Oldman’s doctor, like Batman’s Commissioner Gordon, brings a moral centre to the fray. And, every now and then, Samuel L. Jackson pops up, delivering loud payloads of patriotism like a tooled-up Virgin Media advert. His Fox News-esque presenter, who praises violent authorities with saliva-spouting relish, is hardly subtle, but like RoboCop’s clunky walking, is always entertaining.
A climactic set piece which was subject to re-shoots feels a tad unevenly put together, but Padilha’s success is to fuse the film’s overall parts with his hero; the runtime spans two odd hours, but RoboCop’s prime directive (to solve crime) drives Joshua Zetumer’s satisfyingly simple script forward at a calculated, character-driven pace. A late appearance of a familiar catchphrase turns what could have been a heartless shoot-em-up into a thoughtful story of sacrifice and internal conflict. That human side is just enough to give this fine-tuned remake a heart you can root for.
RoboCop (2014) is available to watch on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.
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