1 hour, 57 minutes
Man, last weekend was like a 1980s revival filmfest. Not only was there a new version of 1987’s “Robocop,” but also on display were remakes of both “About Last Night ...” originally released in 1986 and “Endless Love,” from way back in 1981. Just as I might have done 27 years ago, I went to see “Robocop” instead of either of the romances.
Who am I kidding? All these movies were rated R in the 80s. I was 14 in 1987. “The Princess Bride” was about as racy as my movie-going got. Not to worry, parents, this new “Robocop” has been sanitized for your and your children’s protection — it’s rated PG-13. Paul Verhoeven must be spinning in his grave. Assuming he spends any time in a grave. I’m pretty sure he’s still alive.
A reboot of “Robocop” isn’t, on the face of it, a completely crazy idea. Action movies are kind of timeless and the story of a mostly-murdered cop whose life is saved by being turned into a cyborg — well, what’s not to like?
The problem is that the original “Robocop” isn’t just an action movie. It’s a manic, blood-spattered satire of both the media and corporate interests. It’s a strange movie because it almost mocks the audience for being entertained, all the while remaining unabashedly entertaining. Its director, the aforementioned grave-spinner Paul Verhoeven, is a genius filmmaker, though I doubt I’d want to meet him in real life. His gift is turning out incredibly high quality genre schlock that, when you dig even a little below the surface, turns out to be teeming with biting social commentary. Thus, you can watch a movie like “Starship Troopers” and revel in the sci-fi mayhem and gore without ever noticing the wall-to-wall references to fascism.
Spoiler alert, in case you’ve never stopped to examine this underappreciated gem: the bugs are the good guys. With that pedigree in mind, making a PG-13 “Robocop” is akin to a PG-13 remake of “A Clockwork Orange.”
That said, I will give the filmmakers credit for not simply attempting to recreate the original “Robocop” in a kid-friendly way. This current film is a mostly new story with only the basic outline of the original remaining. That was smart — it gives fans of the original less to compare to. The story opens on the set of a Bill O’Reilly-esque television show, hosted by Samuel L. Jackson in a goofy wig. The conservative talk show serves as a framing device for the plot, and is one of the weakest elements of the film, as well as the one attempt at a call-back to the original.
On the show, Jackson, as host Pat Novak, sings the praises of Omni-Corp, a defense contractor providing robotic military support to quell rebellions and subdue the citizenry of countries across the globe. Of course, this is a kind of horror, but neo-cons like Novak think it’s great — so great that he advocates the installation of robotic patrols on the streets of America as well.
Raymond Sellars, CEO of Omni-Corp, and played by a strangely weary yet friendly Michael Keaton agrees. If it weren’t for a pesky U.S. statue specifically forbidding non-human law enforcement, Sellars and Omni-Corp could keep America safe.
But what if you could get around that? What if there was just enough of a guy in that robot to make it seem human? You wouldn’t need much. Maybe just a face, a hand in case anyone wants to shake, and a gross set of lungs inside the suit for just that hint of vulnerability. Sounds like a great plan. Odd that no one seems to consider the remote possibility that the guy in the robot might decide he doesn’t really want to go along with the mega-corporation’s nefarious plans. Maybe no one involved had seen the original “Robocop.”
Standing completely apart from its predecessor, this new “Robocop” isn’t terrible. The action is OK and the suit looks kind of cool in black. On the other hand, it’s so insubstantial that it’ll be gone from our collective memories in a matter of weeks. In 1987, point-of-view shots from the robot’s perspective were something unique (unless you’d seen “The Terminator.” Or “Westworld.” Or “Short Circuit.” Maybe unique is the wrong word.)
This time around, however, I felt like I was being forced to watch someone else playing a first-person shooter video game. The acting is barely on par, though the tone is all over the place. Gary Oldman, as the scientist/inventor with a conscience is OK, but I couldn’t figure out what Michael Keaton was doing with Sellars, who comes off as an aw-shucks friendly uncle through nearly the entire movie — even when he’s with his evil cronies. What kind of a villain is that? Ronny Cox, the original head of Omni-Corp, never patted anyone on the back or appealed to their better nature.
If a member of his staff got out of line, he simply sent assassins to break up that person’s cocaine-fueled sex party with a bunch of hand grenades. Not a lot of ambiguity there.
Director Jose Padilha can be credited with trying to go in a little different direction with this film, but it never goes far enough to justify its existence. Despite the potential for something new and interesting, 2014’s “Robocop” is as pointless as lungs on a cyborg. Don’t buy that for a dollar.
“Robocop” is rated PG-13 for violence, language and some disturbing scenes.
Chris Jenness is freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.