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Edelstein on RoboCop: The Rare Reboot That Transcends Its Studio’s Money-Grubbing

The RoboCop remake is impressively different from the Paul Verhoeven-directed 1987 bloodbath — it fully justifies its existence. That doesn’t mean it’s especially good. But it’s a rare “reboot” that transcends its studio’s money-grubbing. It has some Big Ideas.

They’re extensions of the ones in the original, a riotous and regrettably prescient satire of private enterprise worming its way into the crime-fighting business and obliterating civil liberties. Bludgeoned by fear, society has grown coarse — perhaps to the point that the citizenry longs for fascist might. Verhoeven, as usual, has it both ways. You register the loss of humanity but get off on the violence anyway. The corruption is painless.

As the new RoboCop opens, “OmniCorp” is testing its robo-technology in Tehran in a live link with an O’Reilly Factor–style program (The Novak Element) starring Samuel L. Jackson (or is it Laurence Fishburne?) as a law-and-order blowhard. The company’s robot enforcers are billed as the latest evolution in drone technology, although they prove almost as inept as actual drones at distinguishing genuine threats from empty shows of defiance. (A kid with a knife gets blown to bits.) What’s needed, says a marketing whiz (Jay Baruchel) to the CEO, Sellars (Michael Keaton), is an inner human with whom the public can identify. The top brass review video of severely maimed U.S. vets before settling on incorruptible Detroit cop Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) — whom we’ve just seen blown up by gangsters in his family’s driveway. Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) gets to work detaching Murphy’s head and vital organs from his body and designing a heavy-metal shell for what’s left.

The first thing I missed was the central sequence of Verhoeven’s original, in which Murphy (Peter Weller) is sadistically murdered and then brought back to life in a series of blackouts seen from his point-of-view — shots of doctors and scientist adjusting his visor and snapping him on and off. The cruelty of the killing and the quasi-religious resurrection were staggeringly effective. Director Jose Padilha doesn’t make much of that resurrection; he’s rather matter-of-fact about it. The first Murphy had scant memories of the life he led before, whereas the remake’s sentimental core is Murphy’s ongoing relationship with his wife (Abbie Cornish) and young son (John Paul Ruttan). To make him more efficient on the battlefield, Norton must deaden more and more of the part of his brain that controls his human emotions and his memories. What no one expects is that emotion will bleed through and in effect create its own neural pathways.

Obviously, that’s an anti-deterministic, hopeful view of humanity — a far cry from the original’s pervasive nihilism. What’s odd is that it doesn’t have much emotional heft. The villains aren’t as hateful — they have no stature — and don’t get rousing comeuppances. (Oh, for something like the guy who gets semi-dissolved by toxic waste and then splattered by a truck!) And Kinnaman might be too subtle an actor — his face reads the same when he’s robotic and human. Padilha, a Brazilian, made one of the most powerful documentaries I’ve ever seen, Bus 174, a genuine tragedy that made you loathe police brutality. He’s too much of a humanist for RoboCop. And he doesn’t give enough weight to Robo-Murphy’s investigation of his own murder. It’s too easy for Murphy to access surveillance tapes and nail the culprits. There’s no detective work.

What he and screenwriter Joshua Ketumer do superbly is chart the thinking at the top of OmniCorp. Keaton plays the CEO as driven, even manic, moving at too high a speed to weigh the morality of his actions — he’s like a studio head. Jennifer Ehle is equally smart at his top aide: She often seems on the verge of objecting to his methods but then goes along with alacrity. Baruchel (he was Seth Rogen’s buddy in This Is the End) plays the marketing man too broadly — he’s channeling Christian Slater channeling Jack Nicholson in Heathers, with a bit of the yuppie creep in Die Hard thrown in. But his lines are good. If there’s one thing Hollywood people understand, it’s marketing. And Jackson’s Novak is an inspired touch. He demonstrates the easy collusion between private enterprise and corporate media — and the effectiveness of its anti-liberal, law-and-order rhetoric.

Oldman gives RoboCop its moral center. He’s a dead ringer for Bruce Davison (one of my favorite actors), and he manages to turn the film into a character study. Norton is excited to test his power over Murphy’s brain in the name of science — and driven to pull back in the name of decency and compassion. Is the softness of this RoboCop a mark of similar decency — or of the studio’s desire to appeal to a broad, PG-13 audience instead of the hard-R gore freaks (like me) who’ve seen the original over and over? Let’s assume it’s the latter. But we can still give one cheer for filmmakers with enough integrity to create their own neural pathways.

Photo: MGM