Adventures In Celluloid

Film critic Dominic Corry celebrates, clarifies and justifies his love for all things film.

Dominic Corry: The Robocop reckoning

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Robocop fan Dominic Corry casts a suspicious eye over the 2014 remake.
Joel Kinnaman, left, and Gary Oldman in a scene from 'Robocop'.
Joel Kinnaman, left, and Gary Oldman in a scene from 'Robocop'.

I've repeatedly argued for a pragmatic approach to the perceived remake scourge, but if any film was going to test this admirable resolve, it would be a Robocop re-boot.

There can be no overstating the importance of crazy Dutch genius Paul Verhoeven's 1987 original in the shaping not only my film-loving psyche, but those of a whole generation of boys of a certain age.

The original Robocop's razor-sharp satire, bold design elements, electric action scenes, vicious sense of humour and overall badass-ery make it one of the great genre movies of all time.

Any affection for the film was only strengthened by the dismissive attitudes of people who hadn't seen it, for whom the title more often than not elicited stifled laughter. Being in on the secret of Robocop was a joy in itself, and as a cultural experience it would be replicated a decade later by the film's spiritual sequel, Verhoeven's 1997 masterpiece Starship Troopers, written by Robocop co-screenwriter Ed Neumeier.

Suffice to say, the original Robocop is a film very close to my heart, just as I'm sure it is to many others.

As determined as I remained to give the new version a fair shake ahead of time, I held little real hope that it could possibly hold a candle to the original in even one of the five criteria cited above.

After all, if 2012's woeful Total Recall remake (also from Sony, the studio behind the new Robocop) taught us anything, it's that the most interesting elements of Paul Verhoeven movies are left behind when they are remade.

Anyway, following this extended period of hand-wringing, I finally saw the film (now in theatres!) the night before last.

And it's ... quite good.

Not as good as the 6000 SUX, but I'd definitely buy it for a dollar.

Which is to say, it surpassed my expectations and even surprised me a couple of times, without necessarily blowing my face off. It's respectful to aspects of the original in ways I didn't expect, which greatly endeared the film to me and immediately set it apart from the Total Recall remake.

I will now offer my assessment of the film in terms of the five criteria I mentioned above. There will naturally be some mild spoilers, but I won't reveal anything too drastic.

Satire

This Robocop takes place in a near future America where the notion of a robotic domestic police force is a hot-button political issue. In place of the original's eerily prescient fake news broadcasts, the new film dispenses world-building exposition via a Bill O'Reilly-esque polemic played with amusing bluster by the reliable Samuel L. Jackson. It's an appropriate updating that tethers the film's events to an identifiable media landscape, and enhanced its relevance in my mind.

The original's scathing takedown of the military industrial complex has not survived particularly well into the updating, with the forces driving Robo's existence having a more benevolent role to play, at least initially. There's also been a similar softening of Verhoeven's savage portrayal of excessive corporate culture.

Some ground is gained however in the form of a marketing executive played by Jay Baruchel (This Is The End), which allows the film to comment wittily on branding-saturated contemporary culture.

There is nothing in the new film that evokes the original's enduringly awesome fake advertisements, but if you keep an eye on the news ticker scrolling through Jackson's programme 'The Novak Element', you'll spot some pretty weird stuff, much of it referencing director José Padilha's Brazilian heritage.

Overall I found the satirical aspects of the new Robocop to be amongst its most impressive features, and even though it can't begin to approach the genius of Verhoeven's social commentary and Christ metaphors, it respectfully honours the subversive nature of the original.

Design

Lead Joel Kinnaman's lithe frame suits the new Robo's sleek black exterior, which stands in notable contrast to the more boxy look of Peter Weller's version.

It looks cool enough, but it can't begin to evoke the impact of Rob Bottin's suit design from the original - Verhoeven's film could've succeeded on this aspect alone, without all the other amazing elements.

The new Robo has a less imposing, more agile presence, but this newfound agility is very rarely exploited by the film. They've done a few interesting things with how they put Robo together though.

Joel Kinnaman stars in 'Robocop'.
Joel Kinnaman stars in 'Robocop'.

While I'm glad that the makers saw fit to incorporate a version of the ED-209 mech droid from Verhoeven's movie, all they've done with their update is conventionalise one of the most iconic robot designs of all time. The 1987 ED-209 felt like a stereo speaker run amok crossed with a giant puppy - the 2014 version just looks like any old mech, with right angles and everything.

We also see a lot of drone robot sentries in the new film, which are so generic they could be from any number of recent sci-fi movies.

Overall, I was disappointed by the design elements of the new Robocop - everything here sits in the shadow of what came before, which had a boldness entirely lacking in the look of the new film.

Action

Verhoeven's film had a relatively small budget, especially for a sci-fi action movie, but he was able to present several impressive high-octane action sequences.

While the action scenes in the new film effectively employ the chaotic looseness that defined director Padilha's Elite Squad films, I felt that there simply weren't enough of them, and none of them really pushed the boundaries of what a robo-enhanced police officer could do in the field.

It's apparent that the filmmakers here didn't have a giant budget to work with either, and I like that the film rests on its ideas more than its firepower, but I really needed to see Robo kicking ass more. You really felt the power of Robocop himself in the original. Not so much here.

Humour

The dark humour of Verhoeven's film defines it in my eyes - the famous-ultra violence compliments a gleefully sadistic treatment of its characters that inspires laughs in its audience while shocking them.

The new film's status as a PG-13 enterprise ensured that no such humour would have a role to play here, and there's only a couple of other mirthful moments to make up for it. The satire is present, it's just not very jolly.

Bad-ass-ery

Verhoeven's film is one of the most bad-ass ever made, so any revisiting would surely struggle to live up to it in this area. I am however happy to report that there are a couple of truly bad-ass moments in this film that I think Verhoeven would appreciate. One of them came early on and features Murphy being confronted with the true nature of what he has become - this caused audible gasps at the screening I attended and carried me a long way through the rest of the movie.

But the bad-ass factor is severely diminished by the film's lack of a true bad guy. There are a few antagonists in the plot, but the conflict they present is underdeveloped and they never seem particularly threatening. This stands in stark contrast to the original, which was overflowing with memorably awful scumbags, and features two of the great all-time movie bad guys - Kurtwood Smith's Clarence Boddicker and Ronny Cox's Dick Jones.

It's refreshing I suppose that the central conflict remains internal, and that the finale doesn't simply devolve into a robot-vs-robot spectacular, but this movie definitely needed more scum.

So that's my assessment. I didn't love the new Robocop, but I didn't hate it either.

A new version was never really going to challenge the status of the legendary original, but hey, that's life in the big city.

* Old school Robocop fan? Amped for the remake? Go Robo! Comment below!

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