Paul Verhoeven’s darkly comic and scarily prescient 1987 sci-fi thriller about a crime-fighting cyborg has been given a slick 21st-century Hollywood reboot by Brazilian director José Padilha, best known for the gritty Elite Squad 1 and 2 cop movies.
He’s tinkered with the hero’s iconic suit and toned down Verhoeven’s ultra-violence considerably, but enough remains of the first film’s subversive wit to make this remake one of those rare entities: a blockbuster with brains.
The opening scene, depicting a 2028 US-occupied Iran, straight away strikes a note of coolly scathing satire. Samuel L Jackson’s right-wing TV pundit Pat Novak is conducting a live relay from his studio with a blandly chipper reporter embedded with the robot soldiers heading America’s occupying force.
When the propaganda exercise backfires and the automated warriors start blasting away at foe and bystander alike, the parallels with the remote-control killing of today’s drone warfare strike home with grisly force.
The satire doesn’t pack the same punch when the film’s focus turns to the US but still lands some telling blows against greedy corporations, TV blowhards and morally vacant marketing execs.
The American public, it transpires, is resolutely Robophobic – much to Novak’s disgust – and has no desire to see robot law enforcers on the streets. This is costing robotics defence company OmniCorp billions in lost revenue, so Michael Keaton’s suave CEO decides to put a man inside the machine and give the people ‘a figure they can rally behind’.
The candidate [Spoilers Ahead: nothing, though, that isn’t in the trailer] is grievously injured Detroit cop Alex Murphy (Swedish actor Joel Kinnaman), who wakes up after being caught in an explosion to discover that what remains of his body has been encased in a metal suit (a grey one, at first, in a nod to Verhoeven’s film, but subsequently, a sleek matt-black version).
For OmniCorp, Murphy’s humanity is RoboCop’s great selling point, but when such human traits as compassion, fear and instinct prove to make him less efficient, OmniCorp secretly alters his design to ensure that his machine side takes over in the heat of action, leaving him only with the illusion of free will. (An echo, interestingly, of the deterministic view of the brain held by some neuroscientists that denies human agency.)
From here, Padilha intersperses thought-provoking ethical debate with fanboy-pleasing bursts of action, including the obligatory stand off with the iconic ED-209 enforcement droid. The computer-generated effects come thick and fast, yet happily – and appropriately – they never overwhelm the performances.
Keaton’s sleek CEO makes a plausible rather than cartoonish villain; Gary Oldman is great as RoboCop’s conscience-stricken inventor; and Jackson’s television host is delightfully slimy. Leading man Kinnaman is a rather bland, uncharismatic presence in his early, pre-explosion scenes, but comes into his own when his stricken character has to wrestle with his new identity as both man and machine.
Certificate 12A. Runtime 118 mins. Director José Padilha.
To activate the sound in the trailer: hold your cursor over the screen to reveal the control panel and click on the volume control in the bottom right-hand corner.