Impeccable Cast, Special Effects Elevate "RoboCop" Remake

There’s no better way to draw ire from film fans than to remake their favorites. Creatively speaking, a redo of a classic – cult or otherwise – is a stick to a hornet’s nest, with fans ready to swarm at a moment’s notice. On a financial level, it’s hard to deny the power of a brand name, but remakes don’t always translate to dollars. They’re tricky propositions made trickier by each bad one that comes along. Enter the 2014 version of “RoboCop,” a remake that’s been met with even less enthusiasm than one might expect. Many have dismissed it on principal alone, and that’s a shame. It’s a pretty fantastic action film with brains to spare, and divorced from fan expectations, it possesses the potential to become a classic in its own right.

Fans of Paul Verhoeven’s “RoboCop” have nothing to fear from Jose Padilha’s film. It is entirely its own thing, taking the blueprint of the original and reapplying it to modern day world affairs. As obnoxious – and often disingenuous – as the term “reimagining” is, “RoboCop” circa 2014 is exactly that. Set in 2028, it maintains the coolness of its source material while providing the kind of big budget thrills that audiences have come to expect – all while showcasing a pretty astounding cast of character actors.

Joel Kinnaman takes over the title role from Peter Weller, playing Detroit cop Alex Murphy as similarly unassuming but with a heavy dose of inner turmoil. When a bomb nearly kills him, Murphy’s path crosses with OmniCorp, the corporation at the forefront of robotic technology. The company has had success in outfitting the US military with their products – as depicted in a surprisingly effective pre-credit sequence – but faces resistance at home. Politicians – at the behest of the public – have tabled the idea of using robots to replace flesh and blood police officers.

Michael Keaton plays Raymond Sellars, the boyish, energetic CEO of OmniCorp, while Gary Oldman co-stars as Dr. Dennett Norton, the man tasked with bridging the gap between non-sentience and sentience. Sellars’ grand plan to rebuff objections to non-human law enforcement is to inject a little bit of humanity into his machines – specifically, putting men inside them. A near death Alex Murphy is propped up as an ideal candidate, his condition requiring the kind of resources that only OmniCorp can provide. With the permission of Alex’s wife, Clara (Abbie Cornish), the expertise of Dr. Norton, and a mere $2.6 billion, RoboCop is born.

From there, the pic ramps up into action mode, but not without indulging in some delightfully weird visual cues. The remainder of Alex’s body, sans suit, paints an intense, eerie portrait of a man lost inside a machine, while a video chat between Mr. and Mrs. Murphy is heartbreaking. It’s here that Kinnaman gets the rare chance to emote in a CGI-heavy scene in a CGI-heavy movie, and he delivers in spades, amplifying the pain and confusion of his situation. Cornish is just as good, dutifully relaying her character’s warranted puzzlement.

Samuel L. Jackson provides the occasional respite from heaviness as a blowhard news anchor, Pat Novak, while Jackie Earle Haley (“Watchmen”) plays an OmniCorp drone specialist, and Michael K. Williams (HBO’s “The Wire”) features as Murphy’s former partner. The breadth of the cast is wildly impressive, each actor bringing something different to the picture. This results in the kind of shading rarely seen in action pictures, its array of characters covering the spectrum of personality types.

But if the film has a weakness, it’s that it sets its sights a little too high. In trying to comment on the use of drones in combat, contemplate the nature of artificial intelligence, pay homage to the original “RoboCop,” and entertain on its own accord, it fitfully comes off as overstuffed and undercooked. Its overzealousness is hardly a fatal flaw – it only makes the whole endeavor more memorable – but in trying to be everything to everyone, it sells itself short. Either way, it’s a terrific looking film, and its visuals alone make it worthy of sharing its name with a classic.

This version of “RoboCop” will likely grow in reputation in the years to come, but what’s immediately obvious is that Jose Padilha is a filmmaker to watch. His film will have its detractors – as does everything – but it would have been so easy to make a bad “RoboCop” reboot. And, like it or not, this isn’t it. Its most ardent critics would be hard-pressed to deny its strengths, and despite straying from the satiric bent of the original, this edition has plenty to say – and plenty of ways to thrill its audience.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: February 12, 2014
Studio: Columbia Pictures (Sony), MGM
Director: Jose Padilha
Screenwriter: Josh Zetumer
Starring: Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Samuel L. Jackson, Abbie Cornish, Jackie Earle Haley, Michael K. Williams, Jay Baruchel, Jennifer Ehle, Marianne Jean-Baptiste
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of action including frenetic gun violence throughout, brief strong language, sensuality and some drug material)