Dutch director Paul Verhoeven’s original 1987 “Robocop” — in which man was merged with machine to fight lawlessness — was a savvy slice of science fiction that not only tapped into the era’s fear of crime but also gave viewers a neat send-up of corporate connivance and media manipulation.
Almost 30 years later, hotshot Brazilian director Jose Padilha kicks the story into the 21st century and his cacophonous, pummeling remake is nothing if not current. The clever pre-title sequence, in which a loudmouth TV talk show host in 2028, Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson), takes us to a U.S.-occupied Iran to show how drones and robots control the population, feels as contemporary as a CNN news bulletin.
It’s unfortunate, then, that this “Robocop” reboot shrugs off the pointed satire too soon, devolving into just another big action vehicle — even if it’s a well-made, entertaining one at times.
Swedish actor Joel Kinnaman (“The Killing”) is Alex Murphy, a Detroit undercover cop who goes off on a renegade operation against a local crime lord, Antoine Vallon (Patrick Garrow). It turns into a fiasco with Murphy’s partner (Michael K. Williams, “Boardwalk Empire”) getting seriously injured and Vallon seeking revenge against Murphy. It comes in the middle of the night in the form of a car bomb that turns the husband and father into barely breathing scraps of human flesh. But his near-death provides an opportunity for Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), the head of OmniCorp, the robotics company that manufactures those metal warriors on patrol in Iran.
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Much to Sellars’ and Novak’s angry dismay, the U.S. Senate will not allow robots or drones to act as police on this side of the Atlantic because they lack such human traits as compassion or guilt. But if a robot’s unerring reflexes could be combined with Murphy’s sense of justice and fair play, Sellars might be able to convince reluctant politicians and the public that America is indeed ready for robot rule on the streets.
Besides, Murphy gets a new, superhuman body in the process. It’s a win-win.
Enter Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), the new-age Dr. Frankenstein tasked with melding the soul and the silicon into a street-fighting machine. In a test — set cheekily to the 1971 hit “Hocus Pocus” by the Dutch band Focus (a tip of the hat to Verhoeven?) — Alex outmaneuvers and outguns the real robots, proving he is, in fact, the best of both worlds. That is, until he starts thinking too much for himself.
This version of “Robocop,” written by Joshua Zetumer, not only abandons its topicality about government surveillance and war, but also loses its sense of place. Set in Detroit, there’s none of the urban decay or human distress to might serve as a believable backdrop for this new-generation man of steel. Instead, it concentrates on the personal, as Alex goes after Vallon and others who’ve done him wrong while still clinging to images of his wife (Abbie Cornish) and young son (John Paul Ruttan).
The result is a “Robocop” 2.0 that has less bite and sly subversion than the original.
Padilha, who came to the U.S. on the strength of his Brazilian action films “Elite Squad” and “Elite Squad: The Enemy Within” (the highest grossing film in his country’s history), directs with a sure hand and the occasional, welcome sense of humor (in addition to the Focus song, there’s the Tin Man’s “If I Only Had a Heart” from “The Wizard of Oz” and a nice riff on the memorable “I'll buy that for a dollar!” line from the first film).
But he fails to deliver a compelling new twist on the invincible lawman automoton, and, in the end, it’s the talented young director who falls victim to the Hollywood machine.