I've always been a big fan of "Robocop," which is to say that I've been a fan long enough to watch the titular character transform from a post-modernist take on violent pop culture into a franchise that spawned a cartoon for kids. Or to put it another way, "Robocop" went full meta, coming full circle to be the embodiment of violence Paul Verhoeven was ferociously satirizing. And then we have Jose Padilha's version.
Oh, we've got all the beats: suburban dad and honest cop Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is ground up by the corruption of Detroit's criminal machinations and the ruthless corporate overlord of Omnicorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton); he's then spit out as a cyborg, the creation of the Dr. Frankenstein-like Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman). If there's one thing this new iteration of "Robocop" gets right, it's that this film is as much Dr. Norton's story as it is Murphy's. He's led down a golden path paved with promises to help the population at large by sacrificing, bit by bloody bit, pieces of Murphy's life.
The other thing that "Robocop" does differently from the original is thrust the family Murphy leaves behind front and center: wife Clara (Abbie Cornish) and son David (John Paul Ruttan). It took the sequel in the original franchise to get around to even addressing this, but it's a major plot point in the reboot, and that's a good thing. There's lots of modern twists that make this reboot timely, from the question of drones used on American soil to an always-on television culture that dissects everything and anything. There's just one problem: it's not funny.
The original "Robocop" was a relentlessly violent, gleefully cynical take on modern life in the 80s, fulfilling every jingoistic ambition for America in one glorious blender of murder, rape, late-night television commercials, and awful reality show slogans. Verhoeven never let us forget that there was a craptacular world on the periphery of the events of "Robocop," and that burden falls to blowhard talk show host Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson) in the new version. For the first few seconds, when Novak's vocal exercises are dubbed over the MGM lion's roar, there's the promise that he can pull it off...and then he simply doesn't.
"Robocop" is suffused with enough modern touches to make things occasionally uncomfortable, like when a kid with a knife gets gunned down by an ED-209. But most of the time it's too busy ping-ponging between Murphy's internal struggle with his new body -- or lack thereof -- and his attempt to solve his own murder, with occasional asides by marketing execs marveling at how the plot is unspooling on the stage of American television.
The problem is that there are no clear villains here. The original neatly connected all the dots so that Murphy wasn't just killing the men who killed him, he was truly cutting the head off a corporate snake. In the remake, nobody's really at fault -- they just take stupid risks in pursuit of greed. This robs the film of the catharsis of the original .
This version covers the same story of "Robocop," but it simply can't live up -- or stoop low enough -- to top the original.