Cyborgs were pretty big in the eighties. And ninjas. And cyborg ninjas (I’m looking at you, Cyber-Shinobi). Of all the movie efforts at capturing the robot obsession of that decade, there are two stand-outs: James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) and Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop (1987). Robocop went on to have several less intelligent, and less successful sequels and spin offs. The 2014 re-boot was the first serious, big-budget attempt to re-launch the franchise. The production was beset with problems, director Jose Padilha reportedly described it as ‘hell.’ Key actors leaving the project, producers rejecting 9 out of 10 of his ideas, and the pressure of delivering a film that would appease the originals fans took its toll, and Padilha may be reluctant to take on such a big project in the future. Everything pointed to the film being a disaster.
So what did we end up with?
Robocop (2014) is a very intelligent, well made and interesting film. The strain of creative differences is apparent in places, and the writing is sometimes inconsistent, but overall this is a good, solid movie.
The film can be seen as a (very direct) metaphor for examining Americas role in the world, the use of drones in conflict, and the constant, sometimes vitriolic, debate between liberal and conservative America. The film also touches on the nature of free-will, and the use of technology in the modern world. These are themes that are not often explored in blockbuster movies. I can see where Padilha would have liked to have gone further, but the fact that he managed to get so much of this stuff in is impressive.
Samuel L. Jackson shines as an ultra right wing political talk show host and Michael Keaton is on great form as the super rich villain of the piece. Gary Oldman does his best with some at times clunky, and repetitive dialogue, but still manages to add something as the morally conflicted Doctor, the ‘creator’ of Robocop.
Where the film falls down a little is Joel Mckinnon’s Alex Murphy, the films protagonist. Comparing him with Peter Weller, who played Murphy in the original is unfair, but difficult not to do. Weller played the role with nuance and finesse. He felt like an everyman, a tragic hero. Mckinnon’s Murphy is one note: A tough detective. It’s not McKinnon’s fault, the character is written as a tough-guy. But he seems at odds with the black humour of the movie, and the deeper themes Padilha is toying with. He has some good moments, but these are too few to save the character from being just another action hero.
I tend to forgive films if I can see what they are trying to do, and they are trying to do something cool and different. If you can forgive Robocop its flaws then it is an enjoyable action movie with more to say than most other movies in the genre.