Robocop (2014) never really knows what it wants to be, thanks to taking on the task of appealing to everyone. It eschews the satirical tone of the original and instead embraces the idea of putting a fatally-injured cop and putting him in a machine, and what the ramifications of that would be like.
There’s plenty of social commentary throughout. Gary Oldman’s character, Dr. Norton, struggles with the ethical issues of what he’s doing - increasingly stressed by the prospect of losing his funding, he has to bend to Omnicorp’s every whim, even when it means sapping Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) of his humanity, to meet CEO Sellars’ unrealistic release date and subsequent promotional appearances. The idea of humanity itself is explored, with this movie taking the approach that it’s a human’s brain chemistry that actually makes us who we are. And with Murphy’s chemistry controlled by Norton, talk of free will almost immediately presents itself.
But the movie is called “Robocop,” so there are the requisite action scenes, repurposing of classic lines, visual homages to the original, and other elements that pay tribute to the 1987 film. These two parts of the film - the philosophical exploration of humanity and the obligatory pieces the movie has to go through to be recognizable as “Robocop” - feel distinct and separate, never really quite meshing together. In the original, Robocop’s physical transformation from ordinary cop to robotic super cop takes about five or ten minutes. In this remake, it takes around half an hour, and it’s so clear that this is what the movie would rather be interested in being that by the time he goes out on patrol, it’s not long before he gets taken off the street and starts fighting his programming. The result is a movie that feels oddly-paced - going through looong stretches of Murphy adjusting to his new life as a robot, an action scene, and then back to the internal struggle of man vs. machine vs. corporate overlord.
It’s too bad, because the action scenes are pretty well-done. The special effects are convincing, and really help the audience become immersed in the action scenes. While many will lament the loss of the R rating, the violence is still effective, and the complete change in tone from the original means the over-the-top (and frankly silly) violence from the 1987 version (which completely worked in that context) would feel out of place in this new one. It all just feels too detached to seem like a cohesive whole.
Tacked onto the story is a subplot about police corruption and the man responsible for Murphy’s accident - an instantly forgettable villain involved in the arms trade. Because this movie plays up Robocop’s inner struggles, most of his enemies are too two-dimensional (and in one case too likable) to truly hate and make you want to root for Robocop to defeat. Even if this film was an original property, it’s hard to deny that the villains just aren’t very threatening or memorable in this film. Similarly, the audience is repeatedly told that the Detroit of this movie is crime-ridden and desperately needs a solution to its crime problem, but from what we see of the city, it looks like any other metropolitan area. It never seems bad enough that they needed a robot to clean up the town.
It’d be too easy for me to point to the original to show what doesn’t work in the new one (for example, the first movie wisely omits showing the reaction of Murphy’s family to his transformation, keeping them in the dark, and streamlining the main narrative), but the remake works hard to avoid comparison when it can. And a lot of things do work, like the visual of Murphy’s remaining organs without armor and prosthetics, which is creepy and cool. The new Robocop is much more agile, but for the better. And watching Robocop enter a building and destroy criminals and/or robots is really cool — there’s just not enough of it. Which is weird, because the movie runs only an hour and forty-three minutes and it still felt too long. Not a good sign for a hopeful franchise re-starter.
Finally, because the tone of the film is more subdued and straightforward, the acting follows suit. There are plenty of accomplished actors turning in decent performances; Michael Keaton is the only one who stands out as having any real personality, but Gary Oldman does lend his experience by adding nuance and gravitas to his role. Samuel L. Jackson as a Glenn Beck parody essentially plays himself, but at least commits to it. The rest of the cast, including the guy playing the main character, do what’s asked of them and little more. At the very least, none of the performances distract, and that’s not a bad thing.
In the end, it’s incredibly unlikely that anyone who enjoyed the original will be won over by the new one, but most should be able to at least appreciate the effort. And those who’ve never seen the original will miss most of the references, but might still be entertained by what’s essentially a pretty good action movie for a February release. It’s that fear of either committing to trying something completely new or capturing the tone that made the original so memorable and beloved that lands this movie right in the “average” category.