The stars have aligned bizarrely this week, with remakes of three movies from the 1980s arriving at the same time. I wouldn’t see a second version of “Endless Love” or “About Last Night” unless world peace hung in the balance, but I would guess in any event that the new “Robocop” is the best of the bunch. It’s better than the 1987 original, if I can trust my foggy memory.
Director José Padilha, who’s making his English-language feature debut here, has been known in Brazil for tense features about cops under fire (the “Elite Squad” movies). So a movie about cops taking down vicious criminals in a Detroit of the near future is right in his line, but he also has political points to make.
The film begins and ends with flag-waving TV commentator Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson) urging Congress to do the right thing and fill our cities with robotic security forces. We see them at work in Iran, scanning every civilian and eliminating security threats. (Including teenage suicide bombers, which Americans don’t mind.)
But the U.S. public fears the results of unleashing emotionless fighters on our streets, so Omnicorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) suggests putting a severely impaired man in the body of a nearly invulnerable machine. Det. Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), whose body was horribly burned and maimed in an explosion, agrees to be the guinea pig for Omnicorp’s new Robocop line.
Except for Novak’s rants and the icy cruelty of Sellars’ assistant (Jennifer Ehle), the movie never gets heavy-handed. Sellars would be thrilled if his experiment worked; he gets creepy only when he realizes Murphy must be chemically drained of his emotions to function at top efficiency. Sellars’ sidekick, a weapons expert who prefers to deal with all-metal soldiers (Jackie Earle Haley), distrusts Murphy but trains him capably and gets out of his way.
Gary Oldman has the largest supporting role, playing a doctor who at first seems to be a stereotype – a team-playing Frankenstein focused on pure research, unable to see what he’s really building – but turns out to be more complex. And though the film’s “hidden” villain quickly becomes obvious, the ending does not.
Padilha maintains a steady pace, so the shootouts come as wild rushes of adrenalin. (One takes place in a dark room; we see it through night-vision goggles, as if red-eyed demons were at war.) And he takes awhile to set up Murphy’s predicament, giving us time to understand his relationship with his wife (Abbie Cornish), young son and supportive cop partner (Michael K. Williams).
That’s where this “Robocop” scores over the first one. Kinnaman, star of the TV series “The Killing,” has a warmth Peter Weller never displayed in the original. (Weller looked inhuman before he entered the metal suit.) When the doctor takes Murphy’s emotions away, a strange calm comes over him; we sense there’s still a human being in there, however submerged for the time being. You can root for him while fearing him a little at the same time.