'RoboCop' Review: Sporadically Smart Remake Targets Drones, Corporations and Fox News

'RoboCop' Review: Sporadically Smart Remake Targets Drones, Corporations and Fox News

The 1987 film RoboCop savaged the media, privatization and big, bad corporations. It was the ’80s, after all, and Hollywood couldn’t stop smiting the Reagan-era mindset no matter how the country was economically thriving.

Flash forward to 2014, and a new RoboCop is walking the beat. The remake takes on drones, the uneasy fusion between man and technology and the scourge of liberals everywhere, Fox News.

As unnecessary remakes go, RoboCop offers slick performances, some unsettling visuals for a PG:13 actioner and, ultimately, more proof that some movies should be left alone, thank you. When audiences feel more for the scientist who keeps the titular cop alive than the cop himself, though, it’s clear the remake is an inferior model.

The film opens in Tehran as U.S.-owned robot peacekeepers are grappling with Iranian suicide bombers in a not-so-subtle poke at the Iraq invasion.

We then get to know OmniCorp, the mega-company run by Raymond Sellars (welcome back to big budget movies, Michael Keaton). Sellars wants his robots to keep the peace on American streets but the public is sour on unfeeling robots having the power of life or death over them. He can’t make a big profit unless he overturns popular sentiment on the issue.

So when a cop named Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is seriously hurt in a car bomb explosion, OmniCorp keeps him alive by turning him into a quasi-robot. Murphy will be the perfect way to put a human face on robot sentries. But will Murphy obey OmniCorp’s every whim while bridging the chasm between cop and robot, or will the vestiges of his human self overpower his programming?

RoboCop sheds the goofy side of the original, replacing it with gross close-ups of Murphy’s remaining tissue and more corporate skullduggery. Kinnaman is no Peter Weller, the underrated actor who brought the original RoboCop to life. Then again, Kinnaman’s human half isn’t given much to do. His scenes with his wife (Abbie Cornish) are sweet but perfunctory, and the film both moves too fast and zeroes in on less essential themes all at once.

Yes, seeing Murphy’s pink lungs beating is neat, but we’d rather get to know the soul in play.

Director Jose Padilha clearly isn’t a fan of drones doing our dirty work, something we sense while watching a Fox News-style show dubbed The Novak Element. Samuel L. Jackson is Novak, a flag-waving pundit who wants OmniCorp to win the PR battle on using robots in a neighborhood near you.

The film doesn’t go over the top with the Fox News riffing until the final moments, and then it’s as if Rachel Maddow burst onto the set and demanded a rewrite.

RoboCop has more on its mind than most sci-fi thrillers, and it’s far more efficient than last year’s dreadful Elysium. Just where does technology end and humanity start in a world where the two are starting to blur? Can we have free will if we let robots call so many of the shots?

Yet the film can’t take a firm stand on what appears to matter most to cast and crew. Why are those drones so awful, anyway, beyond the ugliness of seeing Iranians submit to frequent iris scans? And throwing another crooked corporation at movie goers might be the least subversive move in the storytelling playbook?

Kudos to Keaton and Gary Oldman as the wizard who keeps Murphy alive for bringing texture and teeth to the story.

Even movie goers who disagree with the 1987 film’s political targets loved the action, effects and killer lines. The remake trots out a few of said lines, and each one lands with us knowing the first time was far better.

RoboCop embraces a more thoughtful brand of entertainment, but it’s not shrewd enough to surround it with whiz-band storytelling.