Bionic Justice

After 27 years, Robocop gets an update

Hold on. A PG-13 rating? The remake of the gruesomely violent 1987 Paul Verhoeven film is getting a soft PG-13? Truth be told, the rating fits. The original film was far harder to take, at least in the violence department, than this one.

But without many more comparisons to that classic piece of corn (which I've probably seen 20 times), I'm happy to report that this reboot, with better visuals, better acting, better writing, and all sorts of well-crafted political, philosophical, and sociological questions in the mix, is a rarity: a remake that, for the most part, gets it right.

Where Verhoeven's film was shocking in its bloodshed (a bullet to the brain of the good guy, a terrific decapitation of a bad guy) and often hilarious in its characterizations (most of the villains were braying, goofy nutzoids), Brazilian action director José Padilha and first-time scripter Joshua Zetumer give us a film that maintains a high quotient of violence, mostly through excessive firepower rather than close-up brutality, and they basically strip it clean of humor.

Oh, we've got Samuel L. Jackson as a rabble-rousing conservative TV host, overplaying for all it's worth, as only he can get away with. But the film is short, rather than long on one-liners (although I counted three variations of iconic lines from the original). And it reaches high points of emotionalism in a couple of characters: Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), the cop who's in the wrong place at the wrong time, crosses the wrong people, and ends up, through the magic of technology, starting life over as RoboCop; and Dr. Norton (Gary Oldman), the scientist who develops our hero, but ends up, kind of like Victor Frankenstein, not quite sure what he's actually created.

For those who like their big, bad, machine gun-toting robots, there are ED-209s and EM-208s aplenty. For fans of evil empire-like corporations, there's OmniCorp and its CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), and his grim, determined weapons expert Rick Mattox (Jackie Earle Haley). And if you like your satire with a dark but savvy edge, take note that according to the script, this black-suited, only slightly futuristic RoboCop is "made in China."

Marred only by a confusing discussion of the "illusion of free will" — is he a man who's also a machine or a machine who's also a man? — and too much time spent on Murphy's wife and son (Abbie Cornish, John Paul Ruttan), the film's a success in almost every other area. On its own, it's a great story; as a remake it's definitely not a RoboCopy of the original. ♦

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