The first thing to understand about Robocop is that it's not the first film. It lacks the ridiculous violence, the broad satirical jabs and the overall weirdness that made the original an unlikely classic. The filmmakers have wisely chosen not to compete with that gold standard, and enjoyment of this new Robocop hinges on following their lead . This is a reboot, not a remake, and it has its own things to say. The more you can pull off that disconnect the better this new version looks.
It certainly takes itself very seriously, though Jackie Earle Haley has the right twinkle in his eye and Samuel L. Jackson takes some broad swipes at Fox News' various blowhards. In the film's future America, he rants and raves about making robot soldiers -- viewed as highly successful in foreign wars -- legal on U.S. soil The solution? Wait for some poor bastard to get himself mangled, then plug him into the machines. Enter Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman): honest cop, good family man and tireless scourge of Detroit's local drug kingpin, the last of which earns him a free car bomb that detonates in his driveway one fine summer evening. Reborn as a cybernetic killing machine thanks to a well-meaning genius (Gary Oldman), he's set loose on the streets of Detroit, despite the fact that his human soul and programmed hardware don't exactly get along.
The set-up and basic look mark the only time this film emulates its predecessor. Here in our cheerless post-9/11 universe, what was once the height of absurdity feels chillingly plausible, with drone strikes and corporate contracts and safety bought at the price of basic rights. Director Jose Padilha possesses the instincts to set up a solid foundation for these concepts, though he often lacks the courage to really follow through with them. Good or bad, Paul Verhoeven was an absolutely fearless filmmaker. Padilha exhibits more straight-laced action than go-for-broke craziness and the film's social commentary suffers as a result.
It does much better on a more generic sci-fi front. We've seen a lot of meditations on artificial intelligence, and that point where programming becomes so sophisticated so as to be indistinguishable from the human soul. Robocop takes the opposite approach, meditating on how much of a man can you strip away before he ceases to be what he was. The best moment arrives with a look at all that's left of the real Murphy, an image hinted at in the fist film but brought to stunning life here. Robocop shines when it dives full-bore into that idea, as Murphy battles with the question of who and what he truly is. It can't always nail its concepts the way it should, but credit the film for running with that ball instead of just regurgitating its predecessor.
That comes on top of a technically polished production that handles the various explosions and car chases with deceptive assurance. Sony presumably dictated the PG-13 rating but Padilha makes up for it with some surprising intensity, helped out by sharp editing and a strong sense of the human toll at the heart of it all. The cast doesn't hurt either. Seriously, I could watch Oldman and Michael Keaton (as the slimy corporate executive behind the whole thing) just snarl at each other across a desk for two hours. Kinnaman finds the same physicality as Peter Weller while charting his own path for the character while Haley once again remains the final word in duplicitous ferrets. All of them elevate their game, helping Robocop explore its human dimensions without skimping on the fireworks.
Again, that doesn't place it in the same league as the first film. But the producers seem well aware of that tender trap and besides a couple of throwaway one-liners, they make absolutely no reference to its revered predecessor at all. Its sense of itself remains true, and the results create… well, if not a new masterpiece, then at least something well worth paying attention to. Like its armored protagonist, it's what's going on beneath the surface that counts. In that sense at least, both Robocops are squarely on the same page.