So, I did, in fact, see Robocop 2014. It was suggested that some of our readers might have heard about this one. I will tell you right now that my own take on the film is… largely unbiased. The original Robocop never entrenched itself in my lexicon as an ‘essential’ film. I generally considered it to be a fun film, very watchable, fairly standard 80’s action fare… and, really, with the fingerprints of noted Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven all over it. I definitely remember it fondly, but I’m by no means a Robocop purist. The puzzling direction the series took after the original (Robocop 2, in particular, strikes me as one of the worst films I can recall seeing, and 3 is somehow less memorable. I’m sure that does not mean good things). One thing probably anyone would tell you about the original film is that it was violent. Controversially so. Or perhaps that it is infested with foul language? To the point where the f-bombs seem to become their own point. Well, to start with, 2014’s Robocop went for the path of least creativity, and stuck itself in a PG-13 body that is actually pretty teen-friendly. More on that in a minute. But between the absence of Verhoeven’s style, the infusion of 201X’s powerful visual effects, the over the top violence and language, and the absence of any 80s camp, this film bears very little resemblance to the original.
If you wish to appreciate this film at all, you will be forced to do so on its own merits. Looking at it through the prism of the original film will probably not satisfy you, though I may be mistaken. I suppose it depends on how much you loved the first iteration.
2014’s incarnation of Robocop is directed by José Padilha, directing his first English language film. He is best known for his work on the Elite Squad films. His background is in action, and his style is not one that we’ve been down that road before with. I suspect that if this film had been helmed by a Michael Bay, it might have been disastrous. Instead, the result is surprisingly gritty at times, especially during an early shootout between Detroit police detectives and a hit squad sent to eliminate them to cut off their investigation of a local gunrunner. Obviously, the film has plenty of antiseptically clean sets, and the sophisticated visual effects involved give us lots of clean lines and gleaming, metallic surfaces… so it was, in a way, grounding to see some sequences in an experienced hand. Sadly, this style does not hold true through the entire picture, which features some predictably infuriating shaky cam work where our ability to understand and process the action is limited by the way in which it is shot. Some would probably argue this is realistic, and that if I were actually in a gun battle, I could only understand a tiny part of it even afterward… but as an action film viewer, it turns me off like few other things do.
The ED-209 has certainly never looked better.
The plot is a significant variation on the 1987 original, though it does have some pieces of the framework still intact. The year is 2028, and the United States is now projecting its power worldwide through the use of formidable robotic drones provided by Omnicorp (a division, we learn, of the original film’s OCP
. Unlike the original film, in which the ED-209 is clearly the shoddy work of a corporation trying to make money by sending to the lowest bidder, it seems that the ED-209 is an extremely efficient and deadly enforcer and peacekeeper. Its primary flaw, that it cannot reason like a human, and does not know right from wrong, is central to the questions that the film posits. To the extent that it posits anything, that is. As with the original 1987 film, 2014 is introduced to us by a nationwide news broadcast… except, this time, instead of a simple evening news program, we’re treated to an extremely high production news opinion show (something like The O’Reilly Factor, perhaps) starring Pat Novak, a highly opinionated right-wing security lobbyist (a well cast Samuel L. Jackson delivers an energetic performance). Pat Novak wants to know why these drones aren’t keeping America’s streets safe, too.
The answer, of course, is that Americans want their protectors to have a soul. The film does make it clear, incidentally, that the United States has not asked other parts of the world if they’d prefer this same consideration… and this is where the film’s satire lies… in pumping up world peacekeeper thinking until it explodes.
With the realization that public opinion has to change or Omnicorp will never be able to deploy its products to the American market, the company’s executives, Marketing Director Tom Pope (Jay Baruchel) and, Legal Department Chair Liz Kline (Jennifer Ehle) and the CEO Raymond Sellers (Michael Keaton) decide to try and create exactly what their market wants: a man inside of a machine. Using the revolutionary cybernetics developed by Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman, in a very wistful, emotional role) they scour the country’s cops debilitated in the line of duty in search of the perfect candidate – an emotionally balanced cop with the reason and the desire to get back in the game.
Enter Alex Murphy (Joel Kinaman, from AMC’s “The Killing”), grievously injured, with wife Clara (Abbie Cornish) and son David (John Paul Ruttan) desperate not to let him go. Using Dr. Norton’s technology, Omnicorp rebuilds him into the ultimate crime fighting machine… where things go from there is, frankly, fairly predictable. Throughout the narrative, Pat Novak’s show continues to break in, stitching the narrative exposition together with both more of Novak’s bluster and with interviews with other major players like CEO Sellers and the Senator who is leading the opposition to Omnicorp’s technology, Hubert Dreyfuss (Zach Grenier). You will no doubt anticipate the conclusion of the film well before it reaches those final moments, and so aside from a couple of exceptionally well crafted sequences, this film does not exactly break new ground.
What does stand out, and I apologize for stuffing those last couple paragraphs full of as many names as possible (and I still missed plenty!), is the casting, and the acting, that are on display in this film. Everyone involved stands more or less head and shoulders above what’s being asked of them. I particularly enjoyed Michael Keaton in the role of the film’s villainous CEO, who gives a very reserved performance. There is very little evil mania from Keaton, who instead comes off exactly as coldly off-putting as I would expect from a sociopath in his position, going from decision to decision with an eye for the company’s financial future. The more scenery chewing villainy is left up to Jackie Earl Haley as Omnicorp’s in-house military QC, Rick Mattox, and from some villains scattered about the mean streets of 2028’s Detroit.
The original Robocop had a kind of wry humour to it that is entirely absent this reproduction. Curiously, the film is also almost entirely without meaningful visual violence, and almost totally absent of profanity (the traditional single use of ‘fuck’ for a PG-13 film is, in fact, bleeped, since it’s delivered by Pat Novak on his live TV show), and instead feels more like playing a modern Call of Duty or Battlefield video game in its depiction of Robocop battling his foes. This film coasts by absolutely safely at a PG-13 level (seriously, this is not the film you need to be worried about protecting your kids from).
While elements of the film are certainly a visual feast, these sumptuous visuals are actually mostly confined to the laboratory in which Robocop is built and maintained, and in the sophisticated battle armor that the titular supercop wears. The sequences on the ground, so to speak, feel a little more real. I suppose it’s the same faint sense of grittiness that the director’s hand gives this movie, which only rarely becomes a victim of its own visual effects. This is largely a good thing, as I think we’ve all developed a little bit of special effects fatigue over several heaping courses of Michael Bay’s “Transformers”, “Star Wars” prequel films, and other overblown projects. This film struck a fair balance, I felt, between taking advantage of the visual effects available, and trying to substitute them for any kind of substance. There is something going on at the core of this film. Unfortunately, I ultimately felt that it was not enough to satisfy, but plenty to entertain. Your own mileage will, of course, vary.
For those purists out there who are decrying the necessity of this remake (there was none) and the wisdom of doing so anyway… in perfect honesty, this is a film that simply wouldn’t have been made this way in 1987. In saying that, please, let’s admit that the 1987 film would also never have been made that way today. People’s outlook has changed. They look for, fear, and hope for, different things out of the world. Robocop 2014 is by no means a perfect – or even great – film… but it is a much better film for the post 9/11 world than the original one is. It fits its era. Between that, and a slew of excellent performances, you may just find this film to be above your expectations. It certainly surpassed my own.