Movie review: ‘RoboCop’ remake feels true to our times

The film takes on modern threats and anxieties

SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLEFebruary 14, 2014 

Film Review Robocop

Joel Kinnaman plays the new RoboCop, a human police officer who is implanted into a robot body by Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman).

  • ROBOCOP ••• 1/2•

    Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of action including frenetic gun violence throughout, brief strong language, sensuality and some drug material. Starring: Joel Kinnaman, Douglas Urbanski, Abbie Cornish, Gary Oldman. Director: Jose Padilha. Running time: 118 minutes. Theaters: Edwards 22 and Edwards 9, Edwards 14 and Edwards 12, Majestic 18 and Village Cinema.

“RoboCop” is no canned remake of the 1987 action film. It’s a re-imagining that responds to everything that has changed in American life over the last 27 years.

It’s not a somber movie, but it’s dead serious in its intent, using fantasy to present audiences with a cautionary glimpse of where modern life may be heading.

The original “RoboCop” was about crime, with hints of a dystopian future involving big business and corrupt politicians, and yet the misdeeds were small scale. This time everything is at stake, and everything is thrown into the pot: The movie is implicit commentary about the use of drones, about that nature and future of being human, and about the proper role of the United States in the world.

Actually, President Eisenhower might have liked “RoboCop,” because its villain is the same as his — the military-industrial complex.

You know this is not your father’s “RoboCop” from the first scene, set in the near future: A bloviating, flag-waving talk show host (Samuel Jackson) is running live footage of the U.S. occupying force in Teheran, Iran, as monstrous, unmanned machines roll down the street, killing people and destroying buildings.

As this happens, a blond reporter on the scene enthuses into the camera about how “in sunny Teheran, the locals have embraced security as a top priority!”

But the talk show host’s point is not just to celebrate “Operation Freedom Teheran” but to promote the use of unmanned drones in the United States, for the war on crime. This is pretty pointed satire, because in 2014 there really are Americans this crazy, and they all seem to have TV shows.

And so before the credits even roll, we understand that “RoboCop” is intended as a warning to citizens, who otherwise might be persuaded to sacrifice their freedom, their privacy and even their humanity on the thin promise of “safety.”

After such an opening, the challenge of “RoboCop” is to tell a personal story, grounded in the characters, that can, at the same time, open up and take on the weight of those big themes.

We meet Murphy, an honest and driven cop who is just one step away from uncovering a nest of corruption within the police department. Joel Kinnaman, who plays Murphy, has an interesting look for the role: He’s tall and thin, with rough big features that might belong to a villain or to a visionary, but not to a conventional action hero.

When Murphy is maimed and dismembered by a car bomb, the evil Omnicorp — which manufactures robot policemen — gives him a new body and a huge publicity push, in the hope of swaying the public toward the robot program.

In “RoboCop,” nothing seems easier than swaying public opinion. Just give people an emotional hook and a few nice-sounding arguments and count on their limited attention spans to do the rest.

“RoboCop” is the first produced screenplay of Joshua Zetumer, who puts big ideas into play and — without hammering on them too hard — brings it all home by the finish.

He finds an able director in Jose Padilha, who concentrates on the performances as well as the action. As RoboCop’s wife, Abbie Cornish carries much of the movie’s emotion. Gary Oldman, as the scientist who engineers Murphy’s transformation, embodies the story’s ethical dilemma. And Michael Keaton, as the greedy president of Omnicorp, gives the audience something to root against.

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