Last weekend, four new films were released competing for our moviegoing dollars. Three of these were remakes of films originally made in the 80s. The only unusual thing about this is the number – many 'new' films are remakes and the 80s seems to be the current target. Why remake so many films? Hollywood is unable to create a lot of new product, riskier product; they would rather recreate an idea that once worked (maybe) using fancy, more current special effects and give a new batch of actors a chance to work.
Case-in-point: "RoboCop (2014)". Originally made in 1987 by director Paul Verhoeven, the new Robocop is a kinder, gentler, less noisy vision of the future. In 2018, detective Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman, TV's "The Killing") is getting too close to a popular crime lord (Patrick Garrow) who wants to keep his hold on crime-ravaged Detroit. Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), the head of OmniCorp, is looking to expand his sales of the law enforcement robot he has been able to sell everywhere else in the world. The only place to expand? The United States. But a pesky Senator (Zach Grenier, TV’s “The Good Wife”) is blocking his ability to sell the robot peacekeepers in the U.S. The reason? They have no soul. Sellars tasks Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) with creating the new version of his most popular brand. After an assassination attempt leaves him barely alive, Alex becomes the perfect candidate. Clara (Abbie Cornish), Alex's wife, agrees to let OmniCorp use her husband because it is the only way he can live. But Alex, as RoboCop, has problems dissociating himself from the emotion involved in the crimes he has to solve and begins to solve the crime of his attempted murder, leading him to uncover some uncomfortable truths that make many people eager to stop him..
"RoboCop (2014)" is directed by Jose Padhila, a Brazilian director making his first film in Hollywood. His vision of Detroit 2018 is a more pleasant place than the Detroit of the original film. Heck, it is a kinder, gentler place than what the current reality probably is – no streetlamps at night? In this new version, OmniCorp is eager to get a toehold into U.S. law enforcement. This is an interesting way to go, but it lessens the dystopian nightmare of the original. In fact, no one in this film seems all that menacing. And that is, ultimately, the biggest problem with this remake.
There is an effort to create a memorable baddie, but Keaton's Sellars doesn't fit the bill, he is simply a desperate CEO. Jackie Earle Haley plays a shadowy black-ops type of guy, who seems to be Sellars' go-to fix-it guy. But he isn't scary enough. And in order to get a PG-13 rating, making the film available to a larger audience, the violence has been toned down. Don't get me wrong – there is a ton of violence. But because it has been toned down, even the bad guy, Antoine Vallon (Garrow) seems less substantial.
Without a truly memorable bad guy, this RoboCop makes less of an impact. He just doesn't seem as necessary or interesting.
Alex Murphy (Kinnaman) has a loving wife and son, additions to this remake meant to make us care more for Murphy. But the moments they share are too brief. After Murphy becomes RoboCop, Clara shows up a few times to address her unsympathetic robot husband. But these moments fail to register because Cornish never makes us feel she has a connection with the soul inside the robot that was once her husband.
Gary Oldman plays it very straight, trying to make his scientist the emotional supporting character. But this ultimately makes his role as Dr. Dennett Norton pretty flat and uninteresting.
Michael K. Williams, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Jennifer Ehle and Jay Baruchel pop up at various points to add depth to the menagerie of characters.
Kinnaman, who is Swedish, uses a toned-down version of his "The Killing" 'American' accent. It works for his portrayal of Alex Murphy. But just. The first problem is that the accent is very similar and this makes it distracting. Is this the only way he will be able to portray an American? I hope not. He is a good looking guy and shows great promise in "The Killing" and should be able to parlay this into a big-screen career. The accent works here because it helps us create a backstory that isn't provided by the filmmakers. We can imagine his guttural, street language comes from a rough childhood, a childhood that could have gone either way. Like so many big city cops. But that is all conjecture as it is never illustrated on the screen. And if it were, it has been done a million times before, so it doesn't really help or add anything special.
Once Kinnaman becomes RoboCop, he has zero opportunity to show emotion. In fact, there is a scene depicting Dr. Norton lowering his tolerance to emotion. His face is completely covered and his voice is mechanized during most of his time as the robot peacekeeper. Both of these traits effectively prohibit any displays of emotion.
This leaves a very short window for Kinnaman to establish a character for us to care about. There are a few brief moments showing interactions with his wife and son, more showing him on the job dealing with a case. These moments are good, but they are too insignificant to make an impact and seem like speed bumps before we get to RoboCop.
There are some promising touches and moments here and there, but the softer, gentler image of a futuristic Detroit and the lack of a memorable good guy or bad guy ultimately creates a film ready for the scrap heap.