Perhaps the biggest thing the new ROBOCOP film has going for it is that is largely abandons the plot of the first film and uses certain elements of the 1987 source material to make it its own monster. Hey, if you're going to remake a great movie, you might as well try to make it your own rather than a dim copy. The job at hand is still to make the streets of America safe for both citizens and police officers. In order to do that, the robotics company OmniCorp has devised various types of mechanized law enforcement robots, including ones that have a vaguely humanoid form. The robots are already used in cities all over the world as a police force, and by the U.S military in the ongoing war on terror instead of soldiers. But because Americans don't like the idea that the robots don't have more discerning human characteristics and would shoot an eight year old holding a knife because it's programmed to, there's actually a Congressional ban on robots keeping the peace.
So OmniCorp chief Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) and its top scientist Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) come up with a way to put a human face on their robots…literally. When Detroit undercover cop Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is blown to bits by the bad guys who have figured out he's police, the scientists take over and manage to save his head, esophagus, lungs and one hand (I'm not making this up)--just enough to build a body around him that makes him the perfect, thinking mechanical cop. But OmniCorp soon discovers two things: a partly human robot is slower than a full robot because it hesitates before it shoots, and a robot with a human brain has nightmares and violent flashbacks to his near-death experience. To cope, Dr. Norton must "adjust" Murphy's brain to make him more robot, thus eliminating any emotions he might have, partciularly about his wife Clara (Abbie Cornish) and young son.
The old themes and questions of the original ROBOCOP are still there. Is a man that is this much robot still a man? Is this a fate worse than death? What are the ethics involved in making a man think he is in control of his artificial body, when in fact when he enters combat mode, the machine takes over? One of the most disposable portions of the film are these god-awful talk show moments with conservative mouthpiece Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson), who is imploring America to let robots be their protectors and asking asinine questions like "Is Congress pro-crime?" These wedged-in scenes don't feel real or necessary. We get the point and don't need a hammer across the forehead to understand what the debate is.
More to the point of the ethical dilemmas of the story are a couple of conversations between Oldman and Keaton that really get to heart of how much human can be eliminated in Murphy to get him to perform his job efficiently and without mental collapse. The good doctor is the only one whose motives aren't purely driven by money, and he's still can't resist the appeal of being the first to break this ground When we meet him, he's using his advanced robotics to help amputees walk, run and even play guitar again. But the seductive power of the chance to build a whole man are too much for him to resist, especially with OmniCorp marketing and public relations strategists (played by Jay Baruchel and Jennifer Ehle) whispering in his ear.
Screenwriter Joshua Zetumer and Brazilian-born director José Padilha (the two great ELITE SQUAD films and the suspenseful, award-winning doc BUS 174) have done a solid job recasting the original film into a work that doesn't reject the idea of science intermingling with humanity, but the idea here is to do so with some degree of dignity and safety, and make it less about pure greed. Kinnaman is the undisputed highlight of the on-again/off-again series "The Killing," and he does a respectable job as a gritty cop, a tortured soul trapped in a metal body, and a cold, emotionless robot who can ignore his wife's pleas to come home. I especially liked his response when he first sees how little of his body is left to build a robot around.
But even with a decent script and a great cast (which also includes the likes of Jackie Earle Haley, Michael K. Williams and Marianne Jean-Baptiste), ROBOCOP can't really get beyond being aggressively average, which I guess is better than being awful, but that's not saying much. The special effects are flashier and more realistic, but that doesn't make them better or help get past the screenplay's many shortcomings. The biggest problem I had with the film was that nearly everyone who wasn't earnestly siding with Murphy is a corrupt bad guy. If the thought even crosses your mind that someone might not be on Team Murphy, you're probably right. When the film is literally cluttered with villains, why should we care if one baddy is slightly more bad than the rest?
As for the PG-13 rating, it doesn't truly make a difference. The filmmakers still find ways to be creepy without needing to get over-the-top violent; shots of Murphy's "body" inside the armor are legitimately disturbing, not to mention a couple of choice shots of his exposed brain while Dr. Norton adjusts his behavior during surgery. Ick!
I'll admit, I wasn't quite prepared for such a touchy-feely version of ROBOCOP, with a lead character whose love for his family pushes through billions of dollars of precise programming and allows him to regain some of his humanity. It's not the worst idea I've ever heard; hell, it's not even the worst remake of the week. What's missing from this film isn't the splatter that would have pushed it into R-rated territory, but the intensity, a bit of character development to allow us to care about the fate of any of these people, and subtlety.
One need only look at the fantastic pre-credits sequence here for proof that director Padilha knows how to do an action scene--there's no disputing that--but he's still a filmmaker in search of characters with a bit of depth. The few that do--Oldman's doctor, Williams as Murphy's partner--are the best things in the movie. Everything else feels cut from the same old action movie cloth, which is a shame because this one almost got it right.