#3 in my ranking of the RoboCop franchise.
Jose Padilha took up the mantle of the RoboCop franchise and, fighting studio mandates all the way, came up with what is essentially a drama with action beats. The satirical elements that helped make the original fun are replicated in some diluted form, but they seem to miss the mark. The drama elements are a mixed bag. But, hey, the action beats are actually pretty neat, so it’s got that going for it. In terms of Batman Begins style reboots, there were worse ways to go with this, but the rather milquetoast end result is probably as much an issue with studio interference as anything else. There are interesting things going on here, and then there are really bland things as well.
The setup for this is pretty similar to the original. Crime is widespread, and a massive corporation wants to put a man-robot onto the police force in order to help fight it back. Padilha, thankfully, updated the overall questions to a more 2000s point of view with fresher looks at technology and surveillance. Omnicorp is using robots in Iran to, I think, keep down an insurrection after an American led invasion. This is portrayed through the eyes of Novak (Samuel L. Jackson), the host of a prime time news commentary program that’s supposedly based on people like Glenn Beck or Keith Olbermann. This is kind of a terrible way to start this movie because Jackson is all wrong and visually the “show” looks so heavily impractical to feel unbelievable. Because it’s obviously trying to do something similar as the news segments in the first film (that got progressively worse in the ensuing direct sequels), I think it’s fair to compare the originals to this. The original felt real. Made in the late 80s, it, perhaps coincidentally, reflected what local news felt like for the next twenty years pretty closely. The Novak Hour feels fake, all around, and Jackson doesn’t bring the right kind of manic energy I’m sure Padilha expected with the casting. He’s much too sedate and collected, and his wandering around a digital set, manipulating things like Tom Cruise in Minority Report feels less futuristic and speculative than arbitrary.
Anyway, Officer Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is deep into investigating the actions of local crime boss Vallon (Patrick Garrow) along with his partner Jack Lewis (Michael K. Williams) without permission from their chief of police. Vallon is a generic bad guy, and he decides to try and take out Murphy after Lewis gets put into the hospital during a bust gone bad. The explosion of his car at Murphy’s house nearly kills the officer, and Omnicorp walks in to turn him into RoboCop. You see, Omnicorp is smarting because America won’t allow for robotic policemen in country, denying them $600 billion in annual revenue. So, they decide on an alternate path, putting dedicated but horribly injured police officers into a robotic suit as their toe in the door, and Murphy got hurt at just the right time.
The movie is at the most interesting here. This is where Murphy is working with Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) to master the suit and the software, however Murphy is simply not as fast as his robotic counterparts (why this is really necessary when the objective is to just get the toe in the door in America, I’m not quite sure, but whatever). In order to make up the shortfall, Norton, at the behest of Omnicorp’s CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), finds a way to get the software to take over Murphy’s actions while providing Murphy the illusion of free will. The movie does little to nothing with the idea, but for a few minutes, I felt like something interesting was going to happen. That was nice. Better than RoboCop 3, at least.
When Murphy goes back to America, the movie simply just grinds along for a while without much interest. Murphy’s family stays in the picture here, but Mrs. Murphy (Abbie Cornish) is a generic housewife of worry while bringing nothing else to the film. The bad guy, Vallon, is a terribly generic villain that’s instantly forgettable, especially in a film that isn’t quite sure if it cares about him. The movie even eventually has Murphy go all Serpico and root out corruption in the police department as things begin to ramp up.
For a franchise that started with such promising antagonists, the RoboCop movies have a horrible history with them. Outside of that first film, there’s not a single memorable bad guy, and that extends to this film. Vallon, already noted, is horribly generic, but Michael Keaton fails as Sellars, evil corporate bad guy. It’s not really a note against Keaton who’s fine in the role (though some flash and dazzle might have been nice), but there seems to be this perception that CEOs of major corporations now are cool customers who just want to help. That really hampers his late stage turn to gun toting bad guy who threatens Murphy’s family on the top of a tower. Honestly, Jesse Eisenberg’s take as Lex Luthor in Batman V Superman, as a twitchy deranged psychopath, was more interesting.
The whole movie feels compromised which, if you read what Padilha has to say about his time making the movie makes sense, but at least the action is pretty good. It’s hard to find action movies of a particular size in budget where the action isn’t at least decent, and the stuff here is pretty good. The final battle between Murphy and three ED-209s is inventive and kind of fun with a lot of texture to the image in the form of dust and debris. It’s just at the end of a confused movie experience that can’t really settle into one idea long enough to really matter.
I’ve seen far worse movies out there, especially in this series. Yeah, there was no need to reboot the franchise. The original is the kind of movie that so well defines its era in certain ways that they’re not really replicatable. Finding a new direction, like having Murphy think he’s still himself but he’s actually governed by software, was really interesting, but studio notes and interference prevented that idea from really taking off. There are worse ways to spend two hours, but there are also a whole lot better.