When we last left the RoboCop franchise, it was seemingly killed off after the bankruptcy of Orion Pictures. Though it would appear that no new films would be made (especially after the failure of the lackluster ROBOCOP 3), the character continued onward, appearing in two cartoons (Robocop: The Animated Series and Robocop: Alpha Commando), two live-action series (the terrible Robocop: The Series and somewhat better Canadian Prime Directives mini-series), video games (including a crossover with THE TERMINATOR that sadly never became a feature film), and comic books.
Nearly two decades after the release of the original film that started it all, rumblings began of a possible ROBOCOP remake. MGM owned the rights to the character, having obtained them when they bought out Orion Pictures’ film library in the early ’90s. Ironically, the intended remake of ROBOCOP, which MGM picked up during Orion’s bankruptcy, was stalled time and again until MGM emerged from their own bankruptcy in December of 2010.
And before you go shouting “RoboCop curse,” let it be known that MGM was already in financial turmoil in the early 2000s. They had stretched themselves too thin financially, and were unable to keep up with the interest payments on their mountain of debt. But finally, in 2011, after all of the false starts, MGM got things in motion and signed director José Padilha to shoot the new ROBOCOP.
This was quite an interesting move for the production company because Padilha (a native of Brazil) is a relative unknown here in the U.S. On top of that, his small resumé only consisted of documentaries, and his two ELITE SQUAD films. Even more shocking was that he was given a hundred-million dollar budget, and was shooting a script written by first time screenwriter Joshua Zetumer! With MGM taking all of these huge risks, one would almost assume that the film itself must really be something special, right? Well…
Padilha’s ROBOCOP begins with one of several broadcasts of “The Novak Report” (a nod to the news broadcasts from the original films), where Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson) shows viewers how robotic drones created by OmniCorp are helping to keep the world safe.
It turns out that foreigners living in OmniCorp-occupied nations are not keen on the idea of having robotic overlords, and several attempt to sacrifice themselves on live TV to prove this point. However, the stunt is written off as a thwarted terrorist attack, which Novak spins into a “why is America so robo-phobic” debate.
You see, OmniCorp’s flying drones, enormous ED-209 war machines, and EM-208 robotic humanoid warriors are being purchased and utilized all over the world, with the exception of the United States. Due to Congressional legislation (most notably the “Dreyfuss Act”) OmniCorp is forbidden to sell their units on U.S. soil.
The reasoning behind this is that Senator Hubert Dreyfuss doesn’t believe a soulless machine can, or should be fully trusted with human lives. With his company “hemorrhaging” money, and Dreyfuss and the majority of the Senate refusing to budge, CEO Ray Sellars (Michael Keaton) is looking for a miracle.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, so Ray develops a scheme to “put a man inside a machine,” win the public opinion, and turn things around for his company. Meanwhile, elsewhere in Detroit, we meet detectives Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) and Jack Lewis (Michael K. Williams), who get into a gunfight during a botched sting operation.
Lewis is injured and hospitalized, and Murphy is chided by the Chief of Police (Marrianne Jean-Baptiste) for performing an investigation without the proper clearance. Murphy tries to tell his superior that the weapons he was going to buy during the sting were stolen from the precinct’s evidence room (meaning dirty cops are involved) but she will have none of that!
Since he is being such a pest, Murphy becomes the target of a hit, set up by a drug lord/arms dealer Antoine Vallon (Patrick Garrow). Late one night after work, Murphy’s car alarm goes off, and as he attempts to turn it off, his vehicle explodes. The incident turns Murphy into a horribly-burned double amputee, with no hope of ever leading a normal life again.
Following this incident, he becomes a prime candidate for OmniCorp’s pet project, and after some legal wrangling with his wife Clara (Abbie Cornish), the fallen police officer is transformed into RoboCop by robotics specialist Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman).
Upon waking from a digitally simulated dream, Murphy discovers that he is “trapped” in a suit of robotic armor. Terrified and confused, Murphy flees from the lab and soon finds himself running for his life through an endless field of rice paddies. (Great, even our cyborgs are being outsourced to China now!)
An “off switch” is engaged, shutting him down, and after he is brought back into the building, Murphy is faced with the awful truth. Placed before a mirror, he looks on in horror as his metallic body is deconstructed, leaving behind one of his hands, his head, and an assortment of internal organs stored in a clear, plastic (and hopefully bulletproof) compartment.
As the film progresses, Murphy begins to come to terms with his new identity. Ignoring his programming, he solves his own murder, avenges his death, puts a small dent in Detroit’s crimewave, and becomes a nuisance to his creators. Having served his purpose of swaying public and Congressional opinion (the Dreyfuss Act is repealed), Ray Sellars orders RoboCop to be destroyed. He takes Murphy’s wife and son hostage, forcing RoboCop to storm OmniCorp’s skyscraper. After battling against a trio of ED-209’s in the lobby, Murphy must square off against Rick Mattox (Jackie Earle Haley), the soldier that helped train him.
With a little help from his partner Jack Lewis, the heavily damaged Robo-Murphy beats the odds and has a (rather anticlimactic) showdown on the roof of the OmniCorp building. Murphy pulls a gun on Sellars, overcomes this film’s version of DIRECTIVE #4, and slays the greedy OmniCorp tycoon. In the end, RoboCop is rebuilt, Dr. Norton goes before Congress and gets the Dreyfuss Act reinstated (much to the chagrin of Pat Novak), and Omni Consumer Products (parent company of OmniCorp) is namedropped.
2014’s ROBOCOP is a far cry from the films that came before it, and that’s a shame because it had a lot of potential. With all the money and fresh talent behind it, I was a bit surprised that the final product was so mediocre and ultimately forgettable. But as much as the film fails to justify its existence, I will say that it is very watchable. The effects are well done, the action is capably handled, and the first half proves to be rather engaging. But is the movie truly worth watching? Well, believe it or not, yes it is.
Taking a cue from ROBOCOP 2, this film attempts to delve into the mental and emotional trauma of a man who loses his identity and body. How does one cope with having their life and freedom taken from them without their express permission? How does one cope with becoming a branded product? It’s really heady stuff for what is essentially supposed to be a silly Sci-Fi action movie.
In the original ROBOCOP, when Murphy finally goes online and strolls out of OCP’s lab, his mind has been blanked, save for his four prime directives. As that movie progressed, Murphy slowly began to regain his memories, and become more and more human as the film rocketed towards its awesome climax. In this reboot, he seems perfectly fine when he powers on for the first time.
He still remembers everything, and his mind remains untampered with (at first). Initially he freaks out and tries to escape, and then he’s faced with a very hard truth after his recapture, leading to the scene where his robotic body is pulled apart in front of a mirror. This is THE most powerful, memorable, and emotional scene in the entire movie.
When Murphy sees himself stripped apart, only to find that he doesn’t even constitute a full corpse, it is truly a shocking and sobering moment. Interestingly enough, it’s after this revelation, and Murphy’s perceived underperformance during test runs against OmniCorp’s EM-208, that his humanity is snatched from him.
Utilizing various drugs and sneaky technology, Murphy is turned into a mindless, crime-hunting drone that ignores everything he used to hold dear. It’s not until his wife stops him in public and pleads with him to remember their son, that he begins to regain his former personality, and sets to work finding his murderers. This turns out to be a fun sequence because unlike his predecessor, this RoboCop has wi-fi access!
He can view footage from any video camera in Detroit, and bring up the entire rap sheet of anyone he sees strolling down the street. It’s a cool update to the character, though I admit that I do miss the bad-ass “data spike” that the original Robo sported. At this point the movie switches gears and becomes a PG-13 action fiesta, and that’s when the problems with the script really become noticeable. First off, Murphy’s wife and kid, and his relationship with them, are severely underdeveloped. We never get to spend enough time with them to really CARE about them.
By the third act, Clara and David Murphy (Abbie Cornish and John Paul Rutton respectively) are just useless baggage. The same goes for Murphy’s partner, Jack Lewis, who only seems to turn up when Murphy requires rescuing, or when snappy one-liner is needed. If all of his scenes were excised from the movie, I don’t think anyone would even notice.
But the biggest problem this film has is the lack of a decent villain. As the movie progresses, we’re given numerous bad guys, but none of them turn out to be the “big bad.” Antoine Vallon is set up to be a Clarence Bodikker-type nemesis for Robocop, but he is swiftly killed off when Murphy invades Vallon’s hideout with his Robo-cycle. And those crooked cops that had Vallon put the hit on Murphy? He quickly takes them down, and discovers that his police chief was in on things, but he never gets to follow through on his investigation! This subplot never leads to anything!
That leaves Ray Sellars (Michael Keaton) and Rick Mattox (Jackie Earle Haley), so they must be the dynamic duo of evil that Robocop must destroy in order to save himself, his family, and his city right? Well no, not exactly. Ray Sellars is just a greedy prick with an agenda, and he only wants Robocop destroyed because well… I can’t really recall why.
Perhaps it’s because he was afraid that Murphy could no longer be controlled? Or maybe it was because he himself was a white collar criminal and feared being arrested by the cyborg he funded? Regardless, with the Drefyuss Act repealed, Robocop had outlived his usefulness to OmniCorp anyway.
As for Mattox, he is just a hired hand, that’s earning a paycheck. Sure he’s kind of a jerk, but that isn’t enough to qualify him as a main henchman or mini-boss. Much like Murphy’s wife, son, partner, and human hand, Jackie Earle Haley’s character barely serves a purpose here, and that’s a shame because I really like him as an actor.
The showdown between Robo and Sellars at the end is stupid and predictable. Sellars, much like Mattox in an earlier scene, is wearing a special device on his wrist that will not allow any OmniCorp creation to harm him. (Essentially, they took DIRECTIVE #4 from the other films and turned it into a fashion accessory.)
Naturally Murphy has a gun out and intends to blow away OmniCorp’s CEO, but due to his programming, he is unable to fire at his target. And instead of blasting his would-be assassin in the skull, Sellars goes off on a tangent, and vaguely threatens Murphy’s wife and son, who happen to be there because the movie demanded it. This allows Alex to get his robotic arm just high enough to pull the trigger and save the day.
Personally, had I written the script, I would’ve had Murphy drop the gun, then take a flying leap off the building with Sellars in tow. It would have been much more dramatic, and serve as a cool nod to Dick Jones’ demise in the 1987 original. Also, it would be important to not show the aftermath; just a shot of shocked onlookers, with Clara screaming in the background and holding her son tightly.
Then it would have cut to black for a moment before fading-in to a burial service at a cemetery. Here it would eventually be revealed that it was Sellar’s funeral (meaning Murphy survived), and a new corporate villain could be introduced to set up the sequel! (See that? In just five minutes, I thought up a better ending to the movie! HA! Take that Joshua Zetumer!)
Though ROBOCOP suffers from a weak second-half, the all-star cast saves it from reaching the brink of total collapse. Joel Kinnaman is an OK Alex Murphy, but it’s not really his fault as the screenwriter, and director, failed to develop his pre-Robocop persona. Though you feel kind of bad for him, you never really become attached enough to really sympathize with his character.
Abbie Cornish is also OK. She’s obviously doing the best she can with the material she was given. Michael Keaton is good as Sellars, but he isn’t slimy enough for the role. The only people that appear to be having a good time here are Samuel L. Jackson and Jackie Earle Haley. Jackson chews scenery as the host of The Novak Report, and remains fairly restrained until the film’s finale, where he rants and calls Dr. Norton a motherf*cker on live television!
Jackie Earle Haley seems to be having fun as the mouthy Rick Mattox (who refers to Robocop as “Tin Man” throughout the movie), but he doesn’t have much to do. He’s just around to provide another brief obstacle for RoboCop to go through on his mission to arrest Sellars for “the attempted murder of Officer Alex Murphy.”
Finally, there’s Gary Oldman’s Dr. Dennett Norton. He’s sort of tortured soul who has to stand by and watch his life’s work become patented and weaponized. He’s an idealist that wants to help people, and it visibly bothers him that Murphy is being treated as a product, and not a human being. He’s probably the only character in the film that the audience can identify with, and Oldman does a find job with the role. His presence definitely raises the bar for the film.
ROBOCOP is a movie that no one really wanted, and it surprisingly turned out to be be better than anyone could have anticipated. The film has a weak script, underdeveloped characters, pointless subplots, an unremarkable soundtrack (orchestrated by Pedro Bromfman, with a pinch of Basil Poledouris), an unpopular redesign of the title character, and lacks a strong villain. But, oddly enough, it’s really not all that bad. (Though after rattling off a list of negatives like that, it would seem so.)
The film boasts a strong cast, some interesting ideas, and a few cool action sequences (particularly Robo’s battle with the ED-209s). Though it does enough right to keep itself afloat, the film isn’t much fun. That’s why, in my opinion, the original ROBOCOP TRILOGY reigns supreme over this reboot. (Yes, even ROBOCOP 3 is a notch above this movie!)
Those films had serious moments to be sure, but they also played with your expectations a bit, and delivered over-the-top action (and humor) to keep things interesting throughout. In comparison, new ROBOCOP unfortunately proves to be a mainly joyless experience, because it takes itself far too seriously.
In the end, I didn’t hate the ROBOCOP reboot, but I didn’t love it either. It has faint glimmers of brilliance, but never really becomes the film you want it to be. As an origin movie, it’s serviceable, but the filmmakers better bring more to the table if there’s ever a sequel. I was never bored during ROBOCOP, and it may result in the eventual ROBOCOP VS. TERMINATOR crossover so many of us have wanted for years, so I suppose I’ll give this one: