Fans of the violent and satirical RoboCop (1987) threw up their arms when a reboot was announced sometime in 2005. Why? Isn’t it too soon? Directors were chosen and then replaced one by one until José Padilha — who made an international name for himself with the Elite Squad action movies — signed on in 2011. A trailer showcasing Joel Kinnaman in the title role with an ensemble cast of Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Abbie Cornish, and Samuel L. Jackson gave hope that this reboot was a sincere one, offering a fresh take on the franchise with some sort of deep examinations on what makes a man a man.
Like the original, RoboCop centers around Alex Murphy, a Detroit policeman who’s undercover and hot on the heels of a crimelord — this time, it’s gunrunner Antoine Vallon (Patrick Garrow). When a meetup with Vallon goes south after their cover’s blown, Murphy faces the criminal underworld on his own after his partner Jack Lewis (Michael K. Williams) lands in the hospital. A hit on Murphy via carbomb sets him up to be the prime candidate for an initiative to put a man inside a machine in order to sway public opinion to get machines onto America’s streets. With Murphy becoming accustomed to his new body and crime rates going down, the issue then becomes one of control as Omnicorps’ CEO Raymond Sellars schemes up ways to increase profits and grease the Congressional wheels.
There’s a lot going on in RoboCop — a little too much. While there are plenty of plotlines and points vying for screen attention, none of them seem to get their full due except perhaps Dr. Dennett Norton’s (Gary Oldman) ethical journey. As the man responsible for the technology that keeps Murphy alive and under control, Norton succumbs to Sellars’ temptation of research dollars in exchange for a product that crosses various ethical boundaries. Oldman is excellent as a distressed scientist who ultimately finds his way, and while the cast is excellent all around, we only get snippets and obligatory scenes that really deserved to get fleshed out. For every amazing and eye-opening experience, like Murphy’s RoboCop undressing which reveals how much of his physical body is left, there are head-scratching moments, like the gunfight at Vallon’s headquarters, which underwhelm and don’t make much sense. In a fight with a robot, would you really handicap yourself by turning off the lights? And for all of its artistic endeavors which give us the potential, the entire movie just feels unduly restrained as the story goes from scene to scene towards its anti-climactic end in which things just sort of happen because someone wrote that it would. Missing is the uncovering of a giant conspiracy and the struggle with prime directives that defined the original RoboCop as both man and machine. In this conflicted reboot, we get glimpses of what could have been. There’s heart here — Kinnaman’s performance adds emotional depth to minimalist sequences with his family — but as the saying goes, the mind is a terrible thing to waste.