RoboCop (M, 117mins) Directed by Jose Padilha *****
Generation Xers beware – this 2014 “reimagining” isn’t the ballad of Detroit policeman Alex Murphy you remember from the countless times you rented it (likely underage) from your local video store.
For while this sci-fi actioner might share the same name as Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 B-movie classic, it’s a very different tale of a “tin man”.
Surprisingly, Brazilian director Jose Padilha’s (Elite Squad) take is arguably a vast improvement, displaying far more heart, brain and no little courage in re-suiting and rebooting RoboCop. In place of Verhoeven’s sadistic and subversive satire, we have a more sombre story, mixing taut plotting and a willingness to tackle some big issues (euthanasia, drones).
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A lengthy prologue, in the form of a Fox News-esque TV show The Novak Element (hosted by Samuel L. Jackson at his belligerent and wild-haired best), informs us that in the near future drone police forces will help America to keep the peace offshore even though their own populace can’t abide a robot pulling the trigger to enforce the law.
US cops will continue to be human, something which frustrates robotics entrepreneur Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton).
“We need something to sway public opinion, a product they love, a figure they can get behind,” he tells his Omni Corp executives.
Enter maverick detective Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman). After infiltrating a major drug organisation, he is horrified to find his partner critically injured. However, just when he vows to hunt the perps down, a well-placed car bomb sees him suffering fourth-degree burns to 80% of his body and his lower spine severed.
As Omni Corp explains to his wife Clara (Abbie Cornish) his only hope of survival is via radical surgery, although at least she’ll get her husband back – in some form.
Yes, while the criminal low-lifes are more sketchy than in the original, there’s far more emotional investment to be had in Joshua Zetumer’s debut script, which not only pumps up Mrs Murphy’s character but also the body horror aspects, leading to some very Lovecraftian and Cronenberg-esque visuals – CGI seamlessly morphing Kinnaman into the ultimate “shell suit”.
He makes for a solid enough lead, even though he’s clearly forced to play second-fiddle to both his attire and a truly impressive support cast that also includes Gary Oldman, Jack Earle Haley, Jennifer Ehle and Jay Baruchel.
Robo-fans may argue that the fun and verve have been bypassed for a blander, more censor-friendly product. Look closer though (in particular at the news ticker) and you’ll still see some dark humour even Verhoeven would be proud of – “beer overtakes water”, “Mexican president opposes illegal Americans”, “Greenpeace hacked by Wikileaks” – as well as nods to the original’s iconic theme tune and a couple of classic one-liners (“I’d buy that for a dollar”).
What could have been a depressing assault on the childhood of those who grew up in the 1980s was instead one of the best action-sci-fi movies since Minority Report over a decade earlier.
RoboCop is now available to stream on Prime Video.