Word leaked two years ago that José Padilha, director of the new RoboCop remake, was struggling mightily against studio suits to achieve his vision for the film. "It is hell here," the Brazilian director reportedly told a filmmaker friend. Now the film has arrived, and it's fairly clear that this RoboCop is a product of unhappy compromise.
Wisely, the new RoboCop acknowledges how times have changed since Paul Verhoeven's 1987 original. The 2028 setting of Padilha's film has Americans grappling with the use of advanced "drone" technology: sure, it's okay as deployed in the streets of Tehran, but Detroit? Not so much. The weapons-technology giant OmniCorp—as per ruthless CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton)—wants to expand into the domestic market, but they're having trouble bribing the necessary politicians to change the law in their favor. Giving the people what they want, Sellars pursues cyborg technology that will meld ultimate firepower and precision to a consciousness capable of making humane calls about use of force. Intriguingly, much of Joshua Zetumer's screenplay concerns R&D, marketing meetings, and product testing of the idea that eventually becomes RoboCop: a construct built around the remains of wounded-in-action cop Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman of The Killing).
The subtleties of this satire of corporate insensitivity to American lives (RoboCop's made in China, Murphy gets digi-stamped "Property of OmniCorp") give Padhilha's film a soupçon of military-industrial complexity. But let's face it: a movie called RoboCop isn't exactly built for subtlety. That's why Verhoeven's gonzo, cyberpunky original was such a blast: nearly X-rated for violence, that hard-R actioner rammed its you-know-you-want-it satire right in your face, and was deliriously entertaining for it. This loose remake, with its PG-13 neutering, can only feel like weak tea by comparison, now matter how much more money has been thrown at it.
The filmmakers' most obvious attempt at satirical bite is the inclusion of Samuel L. Jackson as right-wing TV host Pat Novak (of, ahem, "The Novak Element"), but his exposition-heavy scenes drag and fall comedically flat. Still, Padilha shows excellent taste in casting: Kinnaman's a fine choice in the lead, and he emotes gamely even though the plot keeps cutting away from what would be dramatically interesting, and the deep-bench (if underused) supporting cast includes Abbie Cornish, Jennifer Ehle, Jackie Earle Haley, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Michael K. Williams, and Jay Baruchel.
Judged on its own merits, this RoboCop pump-fakes in some interesting directions without getting to fully explore any of them. Partly, it's a variation on Frankenstein, with an unhappy post-human monster contending with an ethically suspect "father" (the always-welcome Gary Oldman as RoboCop's maker). Briefly, we get a riff on Whose Life Is It Anyway? as RoboCop poignantly asks to be put out of his misery. But mostly, MGM seems to think they've bankrolled a less fun Iron Man, which means the movie only really feels fully realized when guns are blazing. And we're not exactly in a social climate where guns blazing is, with apologies to Rodgers and Hart, our favorite work of art.