As the film begins, the familiar MGM lion’s roar is replaced with the sound of a rolling tongue, of vocal exercises. As the movie fades in, we realize the sound is coming from Samuel L. Jackson, outfitted in a navy blue suit and an impressively James Brownian wig; this is Pat Novak, political pundit, corporate stooge and the film’s greek chorus of sorts. It’s director José Padilha’s way of introducing himself, of breaking the ice with a little joke about the heavy expectations his movie, a remake of a beloved classic, carries. This is RoboCop.
To define it in the terms of RoboCop‘s variety of big business shills, Padilha (who made his name with the wildly popular Brazilian Elite Squad films) has developed a product that, despite some lagging software, is a beautiful piece of design. An imperfect film with some pronounced weaknesses that are often forgivable in light of what it brings to the table, conceptually.
Padilha’s RoboCop follows the story of the original 1987 film but with some pronounced differences; while Detroit detective Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is still killed at the behest of criminals and turned into a mechanical man by a shady corporate conglomerate, he exists more as a propaganda tool than a living weapon in the war on crime. In the world of the film, OmniCorp has deployed drone peacekeeping forces across the globe and America is the last hold out. To turn the tide of public opinion, OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) decides the people need to see a man-controlled machine. Or at least, the appearance of one.
If you were under the impression that the film wouldn’t contain the kind of satire that made the original film great, let me put those fears to rest. RoboCop is a film acutely aware of the world we live in today and has more than a few things to say about it. The CNN aesthetics of drone evangelist Pat Novak’s The Novak Element television program are impossible to ignore and often darkly funny; Novak talks to a general live from The Pentagon, a senator appears via hologram and is silenced via handswipe. “Is Congress pro-crime?” Novak disingenuously appeals to his viewers, the kind of perfectly stupid talking point Fox News only dreams of. While Robocop’s soundtrack has echo’s of Basil Pouledoris’ incredible original score, it’s more notable for it’s darkly comic use of existing music with tracks from Dutch rockers Focus and The Clash to Arlen and Harburg’s “If I Only Had A Heart”.
While the original film’s OCP had a pronounced 80’s Wall Street vibe, the OmniCorp of the new film is Apple through and through. As the film’s villain, Keaton’s black turtleneck-sporting, lie-spitting Raymond Sellars is a fascinatingly sociopathic stand-in for Steve Jobs. The site of Murphy’s rebirth into RoboCop? A factory in rural China. When Murphy attempts to escape, there’s a nightmare quality to it as he runs past a seemingly endless row of pink-suited factory workers.
It’s this strong emphasis on visuals and visual language that ends up being RoboCop‘s biggest asset. There is a jaw dropping scene where Gary Oldman’s Dr. Norton shows Murphy exactly how much of his human body remains. When we see the metal and glass interior of Sellars’ office, there are three abstract paintings on the wall behind him; two twisted silver images of what appear to be human head and, between them, a red heart. During RoboCop’s assault on an army of criminals holed up in a pitch black warehouse, he becomes nearly invisible save for the scarlet curved slash of his eye. And if the film’s less than subtle dialogue about Murphy’s lack of agency somehow eluded you, his wounds toward the end leave him with only his remaining human hand to confront his OmniCorp masters with. This RoboCop is a film that stays with you.
RoboCop is, unfortunately, not without some glaring issues. Although the film is filled with some great performances, especially Jackson’s Novak or Kinnaman’s authentically tough take on Alex Murphy (and at times chilling withdrawn RoboCop), the human element of the film is often lost in swaths of clumsy expository dialogue. The corrupt cops and local crime boss responsible for Murphy’s death are almost totally forgettable and Michael K. Williams as Detective Jack Lewis gets shockingly little to do (although “Omar from The Wire takes on an ED-209″ sure is a 100% accurate sentence none of us ever expected to be able to say). The other major problem is that the film lacks the slick, rapid fire tempo that made the original RoboCop so great; the movie drifts aimlessly at more than a few points.
Even with these problems in mind, RoboCop is a rare remake that is well worth your time. Beautifully shot and emotionally gripping, Padilha’s take on crime’s newest enemy is an often uncomfortable piece of science-fiction that makes accusatory eye contact with the viewer more than a few times.
RoboCop is in theaters this weekend.