If you ask me, the original 1987 “RoboCop” is no classic. It’s an entertaining movie, to be sure, but the “classic” status given to it by many always seemed a bit hyperbolic, its biggest issues stemming from a satire and story that were never truly fleshed out. It lampooned popular culture (the sitcom catchphrase “I’d buy that for a dollar!” comes to mind) and culture in general while simultaneously introducing interesting narrative themes that gave it an edge many science fiction films of the time failed to achieve.
But at its core, it was a B-movie. While its excessive violence was part of its satire, it’s that very same excess that obscured its meaning. Nevertheless, it had ideas and it should be commended for it. The remake, also titled “RoboCop,” takes similar ideas, flips them around and repackages them, but misses what made the first film so interesting. What it misses in story, however, it makes up for with some terrific and exciting action scenes. The two end up weighing the scale evenly. It’s neither good nor bad. It simply is.
Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is a police detective in Detroit. He’s one of the few cops working today that isn’t corrupt in a city that seems to be getting more and more violent with each passing day. One day, at the behest of local crime boss Antoine Vallon (Patrick Garrow) who plants a bomb on his car, he finds himself lying in front of his house with fourth degree burns all over his body.
He’s all but dead and the only way to save him is to utilize some new technology by big business OmniCorp, run by CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton). Political turmoil has prevented his robots, who have already proven themselves successful in overseas combat, from taking the streets of America.
Many believe that since robots don’t know humanity and don’t have the capability to think or feel, they shouldn’t have the right to judge, and potentially arrest or kill, American citizens. However, this new technology combines the best parts of robot and human, so Sellars hopes it will sway popular opinion to his side. Alex is given a second chance and enhanced with mechanical parts. He thinks like a man, but can work like a robot. He’s RoboCop.
And that is the film’s primary deficiency. Amongst the satire, the 1987 film was about a machine trying to find and hold onto its last bit of humanity. The story, while inconsistent, had an arc that slowly built the character into something we could care about. As Murphy discovered that humanity, we too began to see it. Viewers could begin to feel empathy for a creature that, mere moments ago, was merely a machine.
This “RoboCop” flips that around. Murphy is all there, the robotic parts existing solely as a means to move around. Sure, he has some enhanced features, like the ability to access security cameras and computer databases at will, but by and large, he’s still human. While this gives the actor portraying Murphy more leeway, it effectively abandons that arc that made the original so good and negates much of the already silly story.
Perhaps aware of this, the film eventually strips Murphy almost entirely of his humanity, down to the bare essentials that the original began with, but this happens so late in the film and Murphy’s gradual post-humanity stripping incline happens at such a rapid fire rate that it hardly has any time to resonate. A story that should be about the human condition instead turns into yet another Hollywood action blockbuster. It muses on the idea of free will, even going so far as to say it’s an illusion, but such ideas are quickly quashed under the weight of mindless action.
Of course, even mindless action can be entertaining when done right. Despite a couple bland early moments, when its action scenes consist of excessive shaky cam and boring shot reverse shot editing, the film eventually gives up the goods. This RoboCop is slicker, sleeker and cooler than the original and is able to perform tasks that defy the weight of the actual suit that the heavy clanking sound effects suggest it to be.
Its final action scenes, in particular, do enough to satisfy the basic, visceral instincts many will expect the movie to cater to. While the tail end of the finale is largely anti-climactic, the moments leading up to it are quite exciting; superfluous, maybe, but exciting.
This incarnation of “RoboCop” is a give and take. For every one thing it does well, it botches something else entirely, sometimes in the same beat. A good example comes from its various references to the original film, like some lines of dialogue the more astute fans will recognize, but they’re shoehorned in to the point of being distracting more than amusing. The idea of a RoboCop is a silly one that the original film nevertheless proved could be something more. The best thing one can say about this 2014 reboot is this: it exists.