To Protect and Preserve
There are several films wrapped up in "RoboCop," of which the new one starring Joel Kinnaman as the luckless Alex Murphy and Abbie Cornish as his traumatized wife is competent, slick and knows that some topicality will condense automatically in a movie with Samuel L. Jackson as a ranting conservative talk-show host. The immediate problem is the heavy fan-service nods made to another film, Paul Verhoeven's 1987 original, which tend to land with a clang. If the new model is going to invoke its predecessor as knowingly as that, it can't complain if some comparisons are made about the level of ambition. The Reaganite military-industrial complex with its heartless wonks was only one target of the original film, a curate's cornucopia that also scooped up the Vietnam mind-set, blue-collar nobility, the role of women, contempt for intelligence and religious symbolism. José Padilha's version puts all its chips on one number instead, correctly spotting that contracted-out drone warfare is a moral minefield, but down-shifting the end result from gallows pulp to a high-concept sci-fi actioneer about a dead-shot cyborg and the woman who loves him. American Jesus has been swapped out for American Gladiator.
In any case, a better point of reference might be "RoboCop 2," from which the new film borrows substantially. Mr. Padilha and writer Joshua Zetumer beef up the roles of Murphy's wife and the doctor overseeing his transformation, allowing Ms. Cornish and Gary Oldman to engage in some smooth histrionics and easily out-gun the suitably bloodless Mr. Kinnaman. A chewier character by far is Michael Keaton's morally flexible OmniCorp C.E.O., Raymond Sellars, his ethics shifting with the wind. Mr. Keaton appears at one point in a black cardigan rather than a Jobs-ian turtleneck, but the suggestions that Sellars could easily have got his start in Cupertino designing personal computers and iPhones are clear. One day this "RoboCop" should be paired with Robert Zemeckis's "Contact," in which John Hurt's billionaire character is sketched as Bill Gates gone mad.
Mr. Padilha's "Elite Squad" films were sweaty and claustrophobic, which "RoboCop" is not. They were also angry, but "RoboCop" isn't angry enough to escape from the general tone of reflexive self-mockery which has soaked into the DNA of so much filmed sci-fi in the years since Mr. Verhoeven walked this way — and which soaked into post-Verhoeven "RoboCop" too, to be fair. Satire is particularly treacherous ground, given the modern reluctance of mainstream entertainments to embrace the social criticism that's supposed to be part of the package. (Joe Dante stands as the relevant exception; what a sight his "RoboCop" would be.) It might not be strictly necessary to bear in mind, or even care, that the old RoboCop was a pitiable working-class stooge betrayed by the same people who paid his wages; but how else to correctly spot that in 2014 he's a noble warrior with a nifty personalized motorbike and a can-do attitude? Sci-fi satire can speak truth to power, but the new "RoboCop" whispers.
Opens on Feb. 7 in Britain and on Feb. 12 in the United States.
Directed by José Padilha; written by Joshua Zetumer, Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner; director of photography, Lula Carvalho; edited by Daniel Rezende and Peter McNulty; music by Pedro Bromfman; production design by Martin Whist; costumes by April Ferry; visual effects supervisor, James E. Price; produced by Marc Abraham and Eric Newman; released by Studiocanal (Britain) and Columbia Pictures (United States). Running time: 1hour 48 minutes. This film is rated 12A by B.B.F.C. and PG-13 by M.P.A.A.
WITH: Joel Kinnaman (Alex Murphy/RoboCop), Gary Oldman (Dr. Dennett Norton), Michael Keaton (Raymond Sellars), Abbie Cornish (Clara Murphy), Jackie Earle Haley (Rick Mattox), Michael K. Williams (Jack Lewis), Jennifer Ehle (Liz Kline), Jay Baruchel (Tom Pope), Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Chief Karen Dean), John Paul Ruttan (David) and Samuel L. Jackson (Pat Novak).