Dead or alive: Robocop review

Robocop. Image: Columbia Pictures.
Robocop. Image: Columbia Pictures.
Robocop. Image: Columbia Pictures.

Dir. Jose Padilha

When American interviewer Sam Rubin asked Samuel L Jackson about his recent Super Bowl commercial, thereby inadvertently confusing him with fellow actor Laurence Fishburne, it is fair to say that the former Pulp Fiction star was not best pleased. Perhaps he should not have been so upset. After all, it will do his artistic credibility no harm if people believe that it was someone else who appeared in his new film Robocop, which is as bland, unnecessary and instantly forgettable as many predicted it would be.

It was easy to miss, but in that same ill-fated interview Jackson revealed that his initial reaction to the news that there was a Robocop remake in the pipeline was “Why?” and the word hangs over the film like a dark, malevolent cloud.

He claims what swayed him was the involvement of director Jose Padilha. For those who don’t know, Padilha is a critically acclaimed director behind a handful of films you’ve never watched in a language you don’t speak. Robocop was never going to advance his fledgling reputation among well-schooled connoisseurs, but what might disappoint him is that it will not establish his name in the mainstream either.

It is worth noting that, though not a great film, Robocop is perfectly watchable. Set in the year 2028, it follows the story of Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), a police officer who is critically injured in the line of duty and then converted into a semi-robotic cyborg by the aptly named multi-national conglomerate Omnicorp. The company want to mechanise the police force but are blocked by the Dreyfus Act, and they hope that Murphy’s success will encourage the government to repeal the law.

We are actually presented with a very promising cast. Jay Baruchel and Michael Keaton join Jackson on set, while none other than Gary Oldman, arguably the most versatile actor of his generation, plays the role of scientist Dr Dennett Norton (that’s right: ‘Dennett’. Don’t ask), the man who masterminds Murphy’s transformation.

The general concept, character names and even the odd quote (you’ll be able to tell who’s watched the original when Murphy says “Dead or alive, you’re coming with me”) are borrowed from the 1987 version, but it does differ significantly from its predecessor. This is good news for those who feared a repeat of last year’s Total Recall, which took its title a little too literally. The bad news, however, is that the very things which made Robocop a cult classic are conspicuously absent.

Fight scenes have evolved in cinema, and whereas the Robocop of the 1980s thrilled and shocked us with its gruesome violence, the action in the remake remains decidedly unremarkable. It has also lost that crucial satirical edge. Yes, Robocop was a film about a robot shooting baddies, but it was clever, poking fun at the competitiveness and arrogance of the corporate world while providing a sharp critique of the dangers of privatisation to modern society.

The remake has none of this, and it tries to atone for this by including some half-baked philosophy instead. It tries too hard, and when Oldman’s character explains how Murphy has the ‘illusion of free will’ you feel like you’ve taken a wrong turn and ended up in a first year philosophy lecture. The Matrix made us think, but the characters didn’t feel the need to constantly remind us. Only now do I appreciate how important that was.

Unfortunately the new Robocop is terminally mediocre. Hollywood’s obsession with remakes is almost as troubling as its penchant for endless sequels, and the news that Robocop II is on the way is as predictable as it is disappointing. There is a temptation once again to wonder why. I suggest, instead, that we wait, ignore it, and just pray that these merciless gold diggers don’t touch Blade Runner.


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