Film Review: 'Robocop' update oscillates its positronic wheels

Hey, look at this week's big new films!: “About Last Night”... “Endless Love”... “RoboCop”.... Were the last three decades merely a dream? If they were, I surely would have left my waking self a note somewhere, listing the next 30 Superbowl winners, several major tech startups, and a peek into real estate values.

Damn! No message. Ergo: real, not a dream. Then why the chilly deja vu shivers running down my spine? Could it have something to do with the roster above? What does it mean that in 2014 three out of four big releases in one week are remakes of ’80s productions? Two of them weren't very good in the first place, so there might be room for improvement. But “RoboCop”? One of the three greatest, most iconic action films of its decade? Sitting high on shelf with “Road Warrior” and “The Terminator”?

And yet, Sony and Brazilian director Jose Padilha (“Bus 194”) have gone up against Paul Verhoeven's 1987 classic without much in the way of new ideas.

Most of the plot is identical: honest Detroit cop Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is blasted to hell and gone. By all rights, he should be dead, but he is “saved” by multinational giant Omnicorp, whose researchers fit him out with new super-powered prosthetics and use him as a guinea pig/prototype for a new cybernetic cop — perfect for eradicating bad guys, which is good for business. Except that Omnicorp is full of bad guys, and Omnicorp controls RoboCop Murphy.

I would applaud the new version for not being otherwise slavish...if it weren't that everything they changed turns out to be essential.

Most obvious is the change of tone: Outside of a few effective quips, “RoboCop” 2014 is almost devoid of humor. It's as though they didn't pick up the extent to which the 1987 film's comedy aspects were crucial. A little bit of the social satire remains, though presented in a more obvious manner. Samuel L. Jackson (as a parody of Fox News commentators) is funny and frightening, but even he can't put across the film's flat “statement of intent” in his final rant.

If the emotional elements in 1987 were underplayed, the new film ramps them up. Murphy's wife and kids have become central plot figures. This helps make the title character more “sympathetic” — easier to relate to? more human? — in the short run. But it's another sign of the tonal shift. Peter Weller, in the original film, may have been less expressive, but he was fun to hang out with. Kinnaman's version is much more “realistic” in its treatment of the emotional strain within the character; he constantly seems of the verge of a nervous breakdown. In short, he's a drama queen.

There are two performances that occasionally redeem the whole affair. Michael Keaton rarely plays villains, but, as the head of Omnicorp, he's perfect. A number of times, he seems off in another world, maybe even discovering an unknown depth of humanity — until he opens his mouth. Then it's clear that his distraction simply means he's furiously calculating the financial profit/risk element of his next move, with not a drop of empathy.

Gary Oldman is better known for psychopathic scenery-chewing than quiet reflection. But here — even more than in Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy — his character is one of the few good guys, a weak geek, appalled by what his research has turned into. It's precisely because we're so accustomed to seeing Oldman playing manic villains that his vulnerability here is so apparent. His sense of guilt practically oozes out of his eyes.


ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).

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