Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Samuel L. Jackson, Abbie Cornish, Jackie Earle Haley, Michael K. Williams, Jennifer Ehle, Jay Baruchel
(MGM/Columbia Pictures; US theatrical: 12 Feb 2014 (General release); 2014)
The late Roger Ebert once said, “Sometimes, it’s all about the casting.” Joss Whedon argues that, “Casting is storytelling.” Actor Steve Buscemi puts it flatly - “Casting is everything,” while Todd Solondz agrees, saying “If you get the right people, they make you look good.” On the face of it, then, the update of Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop should be a masterpiece. After all, it has Gary Oldman (terrific), Samuel L. Jackson (completely bad ass), Michael Keaton (surprisingly strong as of late), and Jackie Earle Haley (YES!) as part of the process leading up to a dystopian Detroit experiment which puts “a man inside the machine.” Even ancillary characters are essayed by such interesting choices as The Wire‘s Michael K. Williams, Abbie Cornish, and Jay Baruchel.
So what’s the problem, you ask? Where is the flaw in this otherwise solid filmmaking advise? Well, it could be the hiring of blank as a fart lead Joel Kinnaman. The Swedish actor, perhaps best known as part of AMC’s The Killing, looks a lot like the love child of Jon Stewart and Max Headroom’s Max Frewer, and he has all the emotional range of a corpse incorporated into the leftovers from a humanoid erector set. Indeed, when placed up against his performance betters, he shrinks into the background like the lackluster design of this particularly bland future shock. Love him, love the update. Hate him and well… Indeed, Kinnaman kills any chance this remake has to succeed.
So does the overly ambitious mash-up narrative. In this not too distant shape of things to come, America is still fighting terrorism overseas. Using a combination of robot ground troops and mechanical military drones (enter the previous film’s iconic ED-209), these strategies have Conservative right wing-nuts like Patrick “Pat” Novak (Jackson) screaming for something similar for the US’s crime-ridden cities. The only problem? Congress won’t repeal an anti-automaton bill that is very popular with the people. So Raymond Sellars (Keaton), the CEO of OmniCorp and main Department of Defense contractor, decides to pull a PR stunt. He wants to find an injured cop and “merge” him with one of the mechanical military men. He hopes the trick will sway public opinion in his favor.
As luck would have it, Alex Murphy (Kinnaman) and his partner (Williams) have just been ambushed as part of an investigation into a gun running mobster (Patrick Garrow). Someone inside the Detroit Police are on the take, and before we know it, our lead is the victim of another attempted assassination. Gravely injured, he is immediately seen as Sellars’ savior. Thanks to the genius of Dr. Dennett Norton (Oldman) and the permission of his spouse (Cornish), Alex Murphy becomes “Robocop,” a marketing coup for OCP and a pain for the anti-robot alliance. When he goes rogue, however, hoping to solve his own attempted murder, he uncovers crimes with connections high up within the department and OCP.
Frankly, the new Robocop is five different films forced together. Instead of meshing organically, however, they battle with each other until there is nothing viable left. It’s not just enough that we have the standard “cops on the take” material, or the whole man playing God-Frankenstein angle. No, according to writer Joshua Zetumer and director Jose Padilha, we need familial discord, Neo-Con ranting, Fox News spoofs, personal revenge, and smug unfunny marketing satire as part of the package as well. Now, with a strong lead and an equally viable visionary behind the lens, all of this could work. It did for Paul Verhoeven when he turned Peter Weller into his own version of Jesus Christ for his messianic take on the material. Here, Padilha just goes through the motions, Kinnaman a cog in his otherwise mediocre machine.
Unlike the original, which seems to spark invention and insanity from every single splice of celluloid, this is a tired, redundant experience. We’ve seen stuff like this before, all glossy white metal steel science rooms and computer screens that demand Minority Report like operator interaction. The first film offered a viable villain (Kurtwood Smith), a group of equally awful bad guys in the power chairs (Ronny Cox, Dan O’Herlihy) and a real feel for the lawless wild west nature of a decaying major metropolis. Here, Detroit seems pretty settled. There’s supposedly enough rampant crime to warrant something like Robocop, but not enough examples of this to sell the situation to audiences. Verhoeven went heavy on the blood and gore to underscore the need for something like a mechanized Murphy. With its PG-13 tenets, this movie only suggests such a mandate.
Sure, there are some stellar moments. Murphy learns the Robo-ropes in an intriguing simulation set to the classic FM rocker “Hocus Pocus” (by Focus) and every time Oldman is onscreen, he brings and understanding and empathy to the situations that everyone else misses. We also get to see how Murphy is incorporated into the suit, and the F/X are quite impressive. There are a couple of clever call backs to the original film and there is a clear sense that this redux is just one reconfigured step away from being really great (perhaps, a different lead, or better still, Michael K. Williams as Murphy?). Instead, the stumbling steers us off the path of an efficient and exciting thriller. Sadly, the action is rare, and when it comes, Padilha relies on jump cuts and some shaky-cam to try and edit us toward the edge of our seat. Instead, there is an overemphasis on the corporate conspiring that leaves the viewer feeling cold and disinterested.
When you consider how horrible this remake could have been, when you see what’s been done to other outrageous Verhoeven efforts like the moronic remake of Total Recall, Robocop looks fairly solid. It tries to be something smart and thoughtful and it puts a lot of acting effort into selling same. Unfortunately, at least for this critic, Mr. Kinnaman’s lack of charisma and limited range reduce all the goodwill down to a groan. When the original film was done with us, a Robo-cult was the result. This time around, all the Robocop update provides is another example of casting’s import and impact.