I suppose I should be up front about this, and make it clear right at the start that Paul Verhoeven's 1987 movie RoboCop is one of my personal favourite films. It's not flawless, but it comes very close, and for me it's probably the best action SF movie to come out of Hollywood in the 1980s: better than Predator, better than Aliens – yes, better even than The Terminator. So, needless to say, my natural inclination was to give any remake the same kind of response a paid-up NRA member usually gives to burglars (perhaps this is where the expression 'extreme prejudice' comes from).
In other words, I approached Jose Padilha's new version of RoboCop with expectations about as close to zero as you could imagine. On paper the story looks very much the same: a powerful corporation, based in Detroit, is looking to expand its profit margins by selling military technology to hard-pressed police departments, but there is resistance to this. At the same time, dedicated cop Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) gets on the wrong side of a particularly vicious criminal and finds himself crippled and mutilated.
But Murphy finds himself drawn into the corporation's machinations – almost literally, one might say – as what is left of him is given a new lease of life in a hydraulically-powered, armour-plated, AI-equipped chassis, and put back on the streets to bring a whole new meaning to the expression 'zero tolerance policing'...
So, like I say, I turned up to this new, 12 rated, no Paul Verhoeven, no Peter Weller RoboCop quite prepared to sling bricks at it for being a travesty of a classic. The opening scene, with Samuel L Jackson as a frothing right-wing media commentator, was not actively painful, which came as a pleasant surprise, and the film actually showed signs of wanting to honour the smart and subversive spirit of its predecessor. Then came an original sequence, with US Army war-robots stomping their way through the streets of Tehran blaring out 'Peace be upon you' through their megaphones – an image so unexpectedly audacious and darkly funny that it quite disarmed me. (The use of a few snatches of Basil Poledouris's wonderful original score was also a welcome surprise.)
The film never quite manages to consistently hit this same tone, but on the other hand I suspect that's not its main objective. The emphasis of this version is rather different – it's less about violent excess and vicious satire, and much more about the personal story of Murphy himself. The key difference to the narrative this time around is that Murphy retains his original identity and memory throughout, rather than emerging from his transformation initially as an emotionless automaton and only later recovering his sense of self. This allows Kinnaman to give much more of a conventional acting performance throughout, and a pretty commendable one it is too, but at the same time it somehow robs the story of much of its pathos and depth.
Hey ho. One thing this movie is not short of is fine actors doing the best they can with the material with which they are issued: Abbie Cornish plays Mrs Murphy, who has a beefed up role in this version, while the various brains behind the RoboCop programme are portrayed by Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Jennifer Ehle and Jackie Earl Haley. The plot has been streamlined, which may actually constitute an improvement on one of my few issues with the original, and while its not as consistently funny as its forebear there are some very good moments: I particularly enjoyed a gleeful swipe at a certain bombastic, overblown, toy-related franchise. (For what it's worth, I'm not wild about the new black and glossy RoboCop design, but that's just me.)
The 1987 RoboCop did a superb job at deconstructing the materialism of that decade – human flesh literally becomes property, after all – and if the 2014 film may not have captured the zeitgeist with quite the same adroitness, it certainly attempts to acknowledge issues such as the bias of the US media and the ethical issues involved with the use of drones and other battlefield robots. It may not have anything terribly deep to say, but even the thought is more than I'd honestly expected.
The new RoboCop is not a truly great movie, but neither is it a disaster nor even an especially bad one. It's solid piece of SF action film-making with a strong sense of exactly what it wants to be and a sensible approach to being it. I was extremely pleasantly surprised (though I suppose you should bear in mind that I approached it with the lowest possible expectations, after all). If we are living in a world in which unnecessary remakes are, in fact, necessary, then this is about as good an unnecessary remake as one could realistically hope for.