The problem I have with reboots is that they usually end up as retreads of once-original stories in a modern setting and a few more clichés thrown in for surprises.
But José Padilha’s RoboCop surprised me. It is a modern adaptation of Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 classic with a surprising amount of thought put into it. It’s not about retelling the story of the old film or presenting the same world. Rather, it does what every reboot should do: examine the old film, and truly consider how each aspect would be adjusted to the modern world.
Just as Verhoeven’s film satirized Reagan-era culture and business, Padilha’s film satirizes our present-day culture. And yet, Padilha has the respect and cleverness to use the same cinematic tactics as Verhoeven. While Verhoeven’s film showed clips of mindless, over-sexualized television shows and commercials to illustrate the degradation of popular culture and to color the background to Alex Murphy’s dystopian future, Padhilha uses the always-entertaining Samuel L. Jackson to lampoon news pundits like Bill O’Reilly and Chris Matthews to the same end.
Jackson’s frothing talking head, Patrick Novak, not only presents the future state of America and the continued use of robots in “peacekeeping” missions in Tehran, but also ruthlessly and boisterously calls for the use of cybernetic police forces in the United States. And while Verhoeven examined and demonized the vicious social Darwinism of the ‘80s business culture in a fashion similar to Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, Padilha is more focused on the more modern trend of focus testing and public appeal.
In fact, the reboot’s new villain, Raymond Sellars, played expertly by the surprisingly lively Michael Keaton, feels more like a Steve Jobs than a Gordon Gecko.
Though I would not say that the film is as pervasive in its satire as the 1987 film, it truly tries to bring the Robocop concept into a modern environment while still respecting its origins.
The film shines in other regards as well. While Jackson and Keaton are stellar in their roles, they are not the only great actors in the film. The incredible Gary Oldman turns in a likable, natural, and sympathetic performance as Dr. Dennett Norton, the doctor who helps RoboCop learn to control his new robotic body.
Jackie Earle Haley of Watchmen also stars as the sarcastic, sociopathic, and charming military man Mattox. The other actors, including lead Joel Kinnaman, are more hit and miss, but I would still go so far as to say that this film is much better acted than the original.
The film is also more emotional and intellectual than the original. While the original had its oddball charm and sardonic wit, this new film is actually trying to examine the science and emotion of the protagonist, Alex Murphy. It goes on quite extensively about the scientific process of actually putting a man in the robotic suit.
Some might say this takes cues from Christopher Nolan’s Batman films and takes from the RoboCop experience, but having Alex Murphy wrestle with the cybernetic side of himself is fascinating. And that’s not to say the film features no action. In fact, Padilha has some very visual creative action scenes, with no two being alike. There are only four or five, but each has its own flavor and visual flare.
Even so, the film is not perfect, and is indeed inferior to the original. While the original stayed relatively creative throughout, the last act of the reboot devolves quite heavily into a confusing frenzy of betrayals and clichés that left me a little disappointed. The first two acts of the movie were surprisingly unique and refreshing, and it was frustrating to see Padilha’s creative and intricate, yet surprisingly balanced, world and story devolve into another railing against big business.
Overall, the new RoboCop is an interesting, though flawed, modern take on the film that takes a new angle and raises some interesting questions about the ideas of free will, and the role of technology.