Director: José Padilha; Writer: Joshua Zetumer; Starring: Joel Kinneman, Gary Oldman, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Keaton, Abbie Cornish, Jackie Earl Haley, Michael K. Williams, Jay Baruchel; Running time: 118 minutes; Certification: 12A
Remakes are funny old things. The Hollywood studios look increasingly as though they’ve run out of fresh ideas as they continue to churn out new versions of well-loved classics, usually with little to no positive reaction from either fans of the original film in question or the general movie-going public. If you look at the Colin Farrell-led Total Recall from 2012, that’s one perfect example of a remake that fails in pretty much every area to capture any semblance of the spirit of the original. It was just a dull, sludged-out profit campaign.
Such an example is the reason that most people, upon hearing the news of yet another remake of a favourite 80s flick, stand at attention ready to hate it with every ounce of their soul. José Padilha’s Robocop had people gathering in the proverbial masses to do just that; waiting, praying for it to be terrible so their months of bickering wouldn’t have been in vain (even I had a dig at the first glimpses of the black suit). What a joy it is, then, to report how misplaced our anger was.
What’s immediately impressive is the confidence on display in the storytelling. Remakes can often be a bit timid in their approach, afraid to step out of the shadow of the original and try new things – but why remake anything if not to put a new spin on it? Joshua Zeutmer’s script appears completely assured of what it’s trying to do; pay homage to Paul Verhoeven’s film while expanding the story of Alex Murphy and his eventual transformation into the eponymous Robocop by exploring the humanistic and moral aspects of the transition. Gary Oldman’s Dr. Norton, the essential ringleader of the operation, provides the film with much of its backbone as he consistently raises the questions of whether what they’re doing right, what the moral implications are, and where the definition lies between man and machine.
What’s even further impressive is just how long it takes for Robocop to get into the action while all these questions are being asked. At least the first hour of the film is spent discussing Murphy’s humanity – usually between Dr. Norton and Michael Keaton’s Raymond Sellars, the founder of OmniCorp, and his back room staff – showing the effects on his family, and the reaction from the public, all while Samuel L. Jackson’s extremely biased TV presenter spouts off allegorical propaganda against those opposed to the idea of both putting a man inside a machine and machines themselves. The script is as interested in understanding the implications as it is with having him kill a bunch of bad guys.
When the action does inevitably arrive, it generally holds together nicely. Of course, it’s very much toned down compared to Veerhoven’s blood-splashed actioner to fit that irritating 12A certificate, with most of the fighting involving Robocop vs robots (no blood), but it’s good fun and often latched onto entertaining rock tracks. There’s a noticeable drawing of breath when the action starts gaining momentum, almost as if they’re saying, “Okay, we’ve discussed all this important stuff that we wanted to discuss – now let’s have some fun.” And that’s completely fine because the audience wants the same thing. Although it must be said, towards the final half hour it starts to grind a little bit, and the finale is perhaps something of an anti-climax.
This isn’t a better film that Verhoeven’s original, but it proves its worth by bringing new ideas to the table and being confidently independent. If hard-pressed I’d have to choose the original, but there genuinely isn’t much in it – far more than can be said for the aforementioned Total Recall. Verhoeven’s is the better action film; Padilha’s is perhaps the more interesting. Regardless of which you deem better, there’s no arguing that this is a surprising little beast and a fresh example of a bona fide quality remake. Dark horse of the year?