Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em RoboCops

roboThe original “RoboCop” is one of my favorite movies of all time – let’s get that out of the way first. Still, when I saw the remake (Or is it a reboot? Reimagining? Regurgitation?) a little while ago, I was excited to see how the story had been changed for an audience living in the actual 21st century. People were saying positive things about director Jose Padilha, and apparently the project was strong enough to get Michael Keaton and Gary Oldman to join Sam Jackson, who is just as welcome but not picky. Even if it was terrible despite all the talent involved, it’s not like the original would disappear from history because the remake existed. Sometimes it feels like geeks are so used to comic book characters having their histories “retconned” that we’re afraid it can happen in real life, too.

I went into the theater ready to accept a new “RoboCop,” and when it was over that’s pretty much where I left it. The new “RoboCop” exists, and that’s fine. I’m sure the producers didn’t set out with the explicit goal of making the Second-Best Movie Called “RoboCop” Ever, but in truth that’s probably all it was ever going to be. And again, that’s fine.

On a very basic level, the new “RoboCop” retains the basic setup from the original: Good cop Alex Murphy falls in the line of duty, is rebuilt as a crime-fighting cyborg by an evil corporation, struggles to regain his humanity, and brings his killers to justice. The remake keeps that skeleton of a story and updates it with references to bombastic cable news commentary, consumer gadget-worship, and slick digital effects. What it leaves behind on the operating room floor, however, are a lot of the elements that make the 1987 original a classic, swapped out for components that are new and different, but definitely not an upgrade.

I’m not going to say that only a slavish, shot-for-shot recreation of the original “RoboCop” would have been a better movie, but in many places it feels as though the replacement parts that were used in the 2014 remake are of inferior quality. For example, if you’re going to replace Kurtwood Smith’s Clarence Boddicker as the story’s top crime boss, his replacement needs to be at least as interesting, in a different way. Boddicker is a character capable of carrying a scene entirely on his own, as he does when he negotiates with a rival drug supplier in a coke factory. He’s brimming with personality. The 2014 version replaces him with Antoine Vallon, a generic Euro-trashy gun-runner whose only hint of a character trait is that he enjoys taking meetings at outdoor whiskey bars. When the new RoboCop finally avenges his “death” by killing Vallon, it barely registers as anything but the end of an action sequence.

Vallon’s choice in meeting places illustrates another place where the new “RoboCop” updates itself with a downgrade. In the original, Detroit was a demilitarized zone, a crumbling urban nightmare that its corporate ownership couldn’t wait to demolish and replace with its own ideal. In every way, it was as if Detroit itself was one of the main villains of the movie. To me, it’s no wonder that Boddicker never misses a Tigers game – he has more civic pride than anyone else in the movie because the city is a perfect reflection of his values. The Detroit of the remake is gentrified and relatively clean. It’s hardly the malevolent force of the original, and so the remake replaces that sense of physical danger with a more removed threat of moral decay personified by Michael Keaton and Sam Jackson.

As the head of OmniCorp, Keaton wants to use RoboCop as a way to sway public opinion and repeal a law against the use of robots as peacekeepers on American soil. Jackson is a TV host on the side of unfettered capitalism. Unlike the original, Detroit doesn’t really need a RoboCop, he’s just a PR stunt used to open up a new market for his manufacturer. To pull it off, OmniCorp strips away everything about Murphy that makes him a human being. It’s a troubling idea, for sure, and the glimpse we get of a robot-occupied Iran makes OmniCorp’s push for robot drones in the U.S. look terrible, but it doesn’t carry the same primal fear as the original’s vision of a future city ruled by criminals.

The idea of a robot-ruled future isn’t as frightening in the 2014 movie because, unlike the 1987 “RoboCop,” violence has no impact. The original movie is not shy about showing the effect a bullet has on the human body, and director Paul Verhoeven insisted that it be that way. The remake’s digital effects and PG-13 rating mean there are a lot of people dying on screen, but for all the bullets being fired at them, they do nothing but make the bad guys crumple and fall to the ground cowboys-and-indians style. The absence of graphic violence probably makes the new “RoboCop” easier for most people to sit through without squirming, but it removes them from having to consider the consequences. Alex Murphy’s death in the original is drawn out to agonizing effect until it’s ended with a bullet between his eyes, but the remake chooses an exploding car bomb that creates plenty of noise but no blood. The use of quick cuts and gimmicks like RoboCop’s night vision visor pull us even further away.

The new “RoboCop” does not compare very favorably to the original. Then again, in my opinion few movies do. There are moments in the remake that are done well, specifically the moment when RoboCop realizes his construction was outsourced to China. It’s also admirable that the remake tries to explore the effect on Murphy’s wife and son, which the original mostly ignored, but it doesn’t make good on the promise. Murphy is kept away from his family for most of the story, so there’s not much more to it than OmniCorp trying to keep them separated until their reunion at the very end.

The idea of remaking “RoboCop” sounded like sacrilege to a lot of people, but the truth is that even a complete disaster of a movie would have been more interesting than this one. Like OmniCorp, the remake takes something that worked fine on its own and gives it new parts that diminish it as a whole.

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