2014 - 108 minutes
Directed by: José Padilha
Written by: Joshua Zetumer
Starring: Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Samuel L. Jackson, Abbie Cornish, Jackie Earle Haley, Michael K. Williams, Jennifer Ehle, Jay Baruchel
Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 version of RoboCop is flush with ultra-violence and biting satire, all while being grounded in the humanity of not only the man in the metal, but also the decaying society around him (it?). This slick updated model doesn’t have the guts, only the hollow casing wrapping them, and any nods to the original are surface-level appeasement. It’s not only that the hard edge has undergone a PG-13-ready scrub, or that Joel Kinnaman is grossly out of his element as the titular law enforcement dynamo. What ultimately dooms 2014’s RoboCop is a failure to settle on a coherent plot, or at the very least manage the many narrative diversions it attempts to indulge in.
In 2028, robot forces choreographed by military man supreme Rick Mattox (Jackie Earle Haley) patrol the streets abroad, keeping the peace while invading privacy. A United States law prevents these unthinking, unfeeling machines from domestic service, and Raymond Sellers (Michael Keaton), CEO of robotics conglomerate OminCorp, searches for a way around the regulation. His stroke of inspiration is to “put a man in a machine” – use a gravely injured cop to encase in a metal suit. Putting a human face (and soul) in a machine could earn the favor of the public and pressure lawmakers to repeal the anti-robot legislation. Sellers enlists the brilliant Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) to spearhead the initiative with the promise of unlimited funding.
Meanwhile, Detroit Detective Alex Murphy (Kinnaman) and his partner Lewis (an underused Michael K. Williams) have their cover blown by gun runner and all-around bad guy Vallon (Patrick Garrow). Targeted for assassination, Murphy is gravely wounded. His conflicted wife Clara (Abbie Cornish) consents to keep her husband alive by subjecting him to OminCorps plans. Reborn as the part man/part machine crime fighter, Murphy/Robocop first tries to grasp his new existence and what it means for his wife and young son, while OmniCorp manipulates their new toy into a corporate drone, allowing the machine to take more control over the man.
This internal conflict could’ve provided a fresh, interesting angle on the subject matter, but any depth is lost in forays into wars on terror, media bias, corporate greed, and an underdeveloped, by-the-numbers action plot with a bland villain and even blander, more obvious take on departmental corruption. The film’s best scene comes when Dr. Norton reveals to Murphy the pieces of him that remain human – it’s a shocking image of a head, hand, trachea and expanding and contracting lungs under glass. But any vulnerability this scene promises is quickly wiped away with a few swipes on a tablet, decreasing Murphy’s dopamine levels and zoning him out to sort through CCTV footage and cell phone records to track down indistinctive bad guys.
Vallon barely registers as a threat, nor do corrupt cops involved in the scheme that led to Murphy’s targeting. The basic idea of OmniCorp using RoboCop as corporate pawn to push their agenda is made way more complicated than it needs to be, with Sellers colluding with Mattox to protect each other’s interests. Corporate cronies played by Jennifer Ehle and Jay Baruchel feel unnecessary, though Ehle’s icy pragmatism at Baruchel’s comedic delivery are some of the best performance moments. Oldman, as usual, is the standout, keeping his doctor a sympathetic and tangible presence, even when delivering rote, on-the-nose informational dialogue (e.g. noting RoboCob’s “illusion of free will”).
Director José Padilha can manage an action scene well enough, but unfortunately there’s just too much to control in Joshua Zetumer’s script. It’s so stuffed we occasionally need shoehorned in scenes featuring Samuel L. Jackson as a conservative blowhard using his TV show as a bully pulpit in the movie world, but also as an exposition catchup for the audience. It’s a ham-fisted attempt to tie things together, and it feels patronizingly like 2014 and not 2028 to make it relatable. While RoboCop looks good and is technically well-made, it smacks of a by-committee design where the whole is no more than the sum of its mismatched parts.
© 2014 by Blake Crane