[I saw Robocop last Thursday but a family emergency delayed this post. Here is my review with apologies.]
I saw Robocop in the theaters as a boy, and I had some trepidation about José Padilha’s remake, but I was pleasantly surprised, and amused at several abortive political jabs.
Robocop in both iterations tells the story of a Detroit police officer who is rebuilt as a cyborg after grave injuries, then returns to duty to clean up the streets and take down a corrupt robotics company. I will deal with the story as an action film first and then address the death-by-irony attempt at political importance.
I enjoyed this Robocop better than the first. That is not a commentary about visuals. Twenty-plus years of computer technology replaced the stop-motion animation pretty well. The remake could not have been made with the cartoonish animation of the nineteen nineties.
It is no surprise that the graphics are pleasing, but other revolutions make the reboot superior to the first.
The cast was great. Joel Kinnaman played a passionate tough-guy cop, a traumatized super-amputee, and an emotionless lawgiver in turns, each one believable. One excellent addition to the story was the role of Gary Oldman as Dr. Dennett Norton. Where the first Robocop had Murphy nearly emotionless from the time he arrived on screen, Oldman’s Dr. Norton is led, deal by Faustian deal, to strip Murphy of most of his emotions in a powerful bit of heroic drama. We feel the victim’s pain for him when he cannot, and the victimizer’s pain as his dearest goals push him towards dehumanizing crimes against his patient.
The most inspired choice was the addition of Jackie Earle Haley as Rick Mattox, the military robot-wrangler who embodies the story’s primary question: Is RoboCop a man? Mattox doesn’t think so, and will do whatever it takes to take the object of his scorn out of the equation. Mattox adds an additional layer of enemy on top of superior robots and the corrupt cops who have returned from the first level of film. Mattox brings all the menace and charisma that made him famous as Rorshach and Freddy Krueger. With Mattox a missing piece falls into place, and RoboCop’s battle to be human is a battle against a visible foe, a much more vibrant conflict for the screen.
The biggest flop is also a casting choice, rather the inclusion of a role that just doesn’t work. The first Robocop film had a great deal of trash and advertisements everywhere in a dirty, grimy city. Of course we were meant to take that as a message about American commercial society, as our wise masters in Hollywood showed us how trashy and filthy it was. This time it is all about drone politics and American imperialism. Padilha shows a nightmare police state in Tehran run by American drone robots, mercilessly killing confused and basically innocent boys alongside Jihadists with no real wish to harm anyone else (I had to choke down my gag reflex there, since this took more suspension of disbelief than the walking and talking robots did). Trained in politics in Oxford, Padilha gives the elitist leftist interpretation of American politics forced into places that it does not fit. The dynamic and powerful Samuel L. Jackson plays a mix not so much of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, though his color scheme is an outright play on Fox News backgrounds, but like the friendly and innocent Jihadists, the personality is based so much on caricatures of talk show hosts than the actual people it was amusing instead of biting, mocking that reveals ignorance instead of keener insight needed for good satire.
Then there are drone politics, another political swipe that misses the mark. Corporations aren’t the ones floating policy after policy of using drones to kill American citizens without trial, spy on American citizens to the total destruction of civil rights and jurisprudence, all for profit. It is government, and leftist government at that. So I had several moments to laugh as the political punches were pulled since our Fearless Leader has stepped right up and expanded every drone program that the left protested for under George Bush.
Both versions of this film are attempted attacks on America. The first film was written during the second Reagan administration, and hit the same ugly drumbeats as most science fiction of the late 80’s. This one is caught between the ideals and the betrayal of those ideals by the leader of his own party. (I am more sympathetic to Padilha’s drone politics, however poorly done. I’ve never been convinced of the evils of the free market. But while I have many dear friends who have or are serving in the military, I would not shed their blood to deprive someone of their God-given rights, and so I will not defame their blood by using it as an excuse to deprive someone of their God-given rights.)
I have read secular critics bashing Robocop as a less politically-relevant remake, and I don’t really agree. But they seem to mean that the film means less because its politics is more secondary to the plotline. They could not be more wrong. That is because the time that the original spent bashing on American (alleged) corruption and (allegedly hollow) consumerism goes towards a better end: relationships and family.
I remember watching VHS-style video of Murphy’s family in the original movie. Here we have an actually relevant on-screen relationship of a loving husband and father with his family. His dreams of his wife and his love for his son are supposed to be part of what makes Murphy human in both movies. Padilha’s remake brings the key relationship to the front instead of leaving it as more memory than anything else. While I do not think that family is the defining human experience, but faith, family certainly comes in closely thereafter, and is a great step. So the very change that makes the self-appointed elite disappointed in the film pleased me greatly. Every scene with the family or about them was an added treat.
Since the political swipes are so poorly aimed or unbelievable, they are easy to ignore. Great visuals, good action, some dynamic bad guys, a sympathetic hero and a hint of redemption to boot, and this story is worth watching for a sci-fi or action hero.