Paul Verhoeven (1987)
Jose Padilha (2014)
Peter Weller - Officer Alex Murphy/ RoboCop
Nancy Allen - Officer Anne Lewis
Ronny Cox - Richard "Dick" Jones
Kurtwood Smith - Clarence Boddicker
Miguel Ferrer - Robert "Bob" Morton
Dan O'Herilhy - The Old Man (OCP Chairman)
Paul McCrane - Emil Antonowsky
Ray Wise - Leon Nash
Jesse D. Goins - Joe Cox
Joel Kinnaman - Alex Murphy
Gary Oldman - Dr. Dennett Norton
Michael Keaton - Raymond Sellars
Samuel L. Jackson - Patrick Novak
Abbie Cornish - Clara Murphy
Jackie Earle Haley - Rick Mattox
Michael K. Williams - Jack Lewis
Jennifer Ehle - Liz Kline
Jay Baruchel - Tom Pope
Aimee Garcia - Jae Kim
Patrick Garrow - Antoine Vallon
Genre - Action/Science Fiction/Drama/Crime
Running Time - 103 Minutes (1987)/ 118 Minutes (2014)
As a child of both the 1980s and the 1990s, I'm pretty satisfied to have grown up during a time when action films kicked a lot of ass. Arnold Schwarzenegger terminated people, Chuck Norris kill mofos for 'MURICA, and Sylvester Stallone shot thousands of bad guys as Rambo. Then towards the end of the 1980s, we had Bruce Willis, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Steven Seagal carrying on the torch. So many action flicks, so little time. But the ones you still watch from that cinema period tend to stick in your mind forever.
One of those action films is 1987's ROBOCOP, an action film that used sci-fi aspects to tell a futuristic story about a man put in a machine to fight crime, not knowing those who created him were pretty much bastards to begin with. ROBOCOP struck a chord in people, probably due to the concept and the character's awesome visual, becoming a massive success [which included two sequels, a cartoon, a television show, and countless other media stuff]. It wasn't surprising that ROBOCOP received the remake treatment 27 years later. Most of us rolled our eyes at the idea, especially when given a PG-13 rating compared to the original's hard R rating. But even when I'm not fond of a certain film being rebooted for whatever reason, I still like to see the newer model with an open mind.
And I did just that a few days ago as ROBOCOP (2014) was released to the public. And after almost two hours, I do have many thoughts on the remake. Is it as good as the original? Does it have any right to exist? Should there be a sequel [the box office numbers have done better than I thought, honestly]? You may be surprised.
While both versions of ROBOCOP have different storytelling aesthetics, they pretty much share a similar plot. Officer Alex Murphy (Peter Weller in the original, Joel Kinnaman in the remake) works in a futuristic version of Detroit, Michigan. Murphy takes his job seriously and wants to stop crime in order to uphold the law. When he gets too close to the truth about the city's biggest crime lords, they quiet Murphy by killing [or badly injuring in the remake] him.
A business called OmniCorp wants to test the study of putting a man into a machine, in order to make him Detroit's first super cop. Dubbed RoboCop, Murphy is programmed into a machine that keeps him reanimated as he's given the crime data system to take down those who are on the wrong side of the law. Unfortunately, OCP failed to realize that Murphy's consciousness is still inside their machine, recalling certain events of his previous life and remembering the enemies who tried to take him out for good. Now with his humanity winning out, RoboCop must get revenge on his foes, not realizing that OCP want to take RoboCop out for being considered a "failed experiment".
ROBOCOP is probably one of the best action films ever made on so many levels, especially during the 1980s. It's a movie that's really tough to review without feeling a bit of nostalgia, since I grew up on this film. It still amazes me how damn great it is after all these years. Sure, some things are a bit dated. But the violence, the social commentary, and just the story about a man struggling to become an object against his will still resonates today as much as it probably did back in 1987. ROBOCOP is a kickass film in every way.
The social commentary stuff, in particular, probably means as much today as it did back then. The commercials that play in between the news broadcasts are just as witty, controversial, and as important in 2014. Sex sells? I'd buy THAT for a dollar! Miley Cyrus knows this extremely well, considering her current success. Think Battleship is a tired old game? Try Nukem, a strategy game using nuclear missiles to destroy your enemy's territory! I'm sure Kim Jong-un still thinks about dusting this game off now and then. Hell, even the sensationalistic media [knowing Leeza Gibbons in this film still cracks me up] still exists more than ever. TMZ? Inside Edition? The local news in general? Why inform the public on important issues, when you discuss Justin Beiber's latest bratty behavior? Fuck news! We need them ratings, yo! Seriously, has the social climate [besides the internet making things more accessible easier and faster] really changed in 26 years? ROBOCOP tells me "nope".
We also get a bit of commentary on big business and politics within the system. Commercialism had bred competition. You want to be noticed? You have to be the best in your field. Second place is for losers. The story of Dick and Bob within OmniCorp says it all - Dick was the Vice President after creating the ED-209, which failed during its test run. Bob creates RoboCop, which excels the ED-209 in every way, giving Bob more recognition, hence power, within the company until he takes Dick's place. Dick isn't happy about this, which reveals the type of people he's been working with. Both Bob and Dick are villains to the story. But while Bob is a bad guy in terms of the corporate world, Dick is a bigger creep since he wants Detroit to be as crime filled as it is to support his ED-209 machines. The moral is that power corrupts. We see it in our political and corporate stratosphere since the release of ROBOCOP. Extortion, closing bridges for only certain personnel to pass through, making the rich richer by making the poor poorer - again, things haven't really changed. In the wrong hands, capitalism can go bad. Sure, Verhoeven displays this in an over-the-top fashion, but the themes presented aren't too far-fetched if you really think about it.
The rest of the characters aren't really all that deep, but at least you understand who they kind of are through their actions. Alex Murphy is just a stand up guy put in a world where none of that really exists anymore. He learned how to twirl his gun to impress his son. He loved his wife. He treats his partner, who is a female, with respect, never looking down on her due to her gender. And he gets murdered while on duty trying to protect the city he loves. The guy is pretty much a hero before the transformation into RoboCop. Ann Lewis doesn't know Murphy all that long before he's killed. But she respects him enough to sort of be his guide into being more human again. The villains, especially Clarence Boddecker, are just the scum of the earth. They kill without a care. They sell drugs that is destroying Detroit. And they're being funded by corporate jackasses. They're total creeps that you can't help but want to see get their just due via RoboCop. The heroes are strong. The villains are strong. The conflict works here between the characters.
ROBOCOP is mainly remembered due to its violence. Even watching it now, the film is more gritty and gorier than most horror films these days. Murphy's death scene, in particular, is just vicious. His hand gets shot to pieces. They shoot his torso a bunch of times. And then a shot to the head. It's just a messed up moment that later justifies RoboCop's revenge on Clarence and his gang. I also enjoy the scene where a mugger is shot in the groin through his victim's skirt [who he uses as a shield against RoboCop]. Then the final acts of violence - where toxic waste gets one of the goons, explosions take place, and RoboCop and an ED-209 beat the crap out of each other - are just overkill, yet so fun to watch. In a way, it seems to be a commentary on how violence [either through wars, and/or in the media] was seen during that decade, while the sexuality was kept to a minimum in a surprisingly conservative fashion.
The special effects probably seem dated to many. But I love the stop-motion effects with the ED-209 [done by Phil Tippett], as I'm a sucker for those kind of effects. The RoboCop/Murphy reveal, once he takes off the visor, is also very cool. Legendary Rob Bottin did a wonderful job with RoboCop's look, with and without the visor. And the gore effects by Bottin are top notch stuff. Sure, the newer ROBOCOP looks a bit prettier due to CGI. But the practical effects are still something I prefer unless you have no choice but to use computer generated effects. And ROBOCOP still has pretty cool effects all these years later.
Paul Verhoeven, in his first American film as a director, breathes a lot of life visually in ROBOCOP. In my opinion, it may be Verhoeven's best work, as he makes both the action and the sci-fi aspects visually interesting and memorable. There's a ton of style in ROBOCOP. The film quality is a bit gritty, with some nice handheld shots and cool angles that set it apart from other action films at the time. The violence is never shied away from, with Verhoeven showing us the brutality and menace that has taken over this futuristic version of Detroit [which in a lot of ways is a character in its own right]. The news segments look like they were shot at an actual television screen, in a nice touch, with great social satire posing as advertisements in between. Robocop's first person view is done really well, making us feel we're actually in the suit whenever he scans people to see if they're a threat or not. Verhoeven infuses the film with a ton of energy, exploitation, and viciousness you can't keep your eyes off of. ROBOCOP, visually, was ahead of its time in a lot of ways - thanks to a visionary director who would do memorable things right after this.
The acting is pretty great here. Peter Weller is just iconic as RoboCop. Although I prefer his acting before he dons the armor, he still makes the cyborg character work with his dry, serious delivery. Funny that Arnold Schwarzenegger was originally considered for the role, but was considered too bulky for the costume. Nancy Allen is sympathetic as Murphy's partner, Lewis. She and Weller have nice, comfortable chemistry with each other that makes it totally believable they would be working together. Again, Allen was not the first choice, as Remington Steele's Stephanie Zimbalist was originally cast. But due to scheduling conflicts with the show, she lost the role. Ironically enough, Pierce Bronson would lose his first chance to play James Bond in THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS due to the show as well.
Ronny Cox is fantastic as the malevolent Dick Jones. Cox is totally convincing as a businessman who would murder his competition, just to keep his job. Kurtwood Smith, best known as Red Foreman on That 70's Show, is the highlight as Clarence. A great character actor, Smith is just merciless as the crime boss. Miguel Ferrer is always great when it comes to playing slimy characters, so the role of Bob was made for him. Also great to see Ray Wise as one of Clarence's lackeys. Interestingly enough, Wise and Ferrer would reunite for Twin Peaks years later. Just a cool cast all around.
Plus, I can't leave without mentioning the iconic ROBOCOP score, especially the film's theme. Just a classic piece of music that I was very happy to hear in the remake. It can't be ROBOCOP without that title theme.
The 2014 remake is more of a character-based film than the 1987 original. Unlike the original film, we get to know more about Murphy's family life and why they're the reason he struggles to overcome the programming OCP gives him. While I wish there were more scenes with Murphy living a life as a loving husband and father, we do get a sense that Murphy was happy in his personal life. We watch his wife grieve when Murphy is hit by a car bomb, which pretty much cripples him for life, making a deal with OmniCorp to do the RoboCop deal to bring her husband back. We watch as Murphy awakes after the experiment, dreaming of dancing with his wife [in a nice moment during Frank Sinatra's "Fly Me To The Moon"] before realizing what he has now become. He struggles with his second life, not helped by his family, who are also struggling with the change. It's only when the scientists at OmniCorp decide to give Murphy the entire criminal database that we really watch the struggle begin. When he learns of his murder, he overrides the system. So the scientists, who feel guilty about this, decide to turn Murphy more into a machine, costing him his humanity. But his family continues to fight for him, which begins the struggle anew. It's a different take on the story, and one I appreciated. The idea of humanity vs. technology has never been more relevant today. With the advent of social networking, and new technology that allows us to make our lives much simpler and more efficient, we have sacrificed a lot of ourselves for personal gratification. ROBOCOP seems to be telling us that no matter how advanced the world gets technologically, the human spirit and soul will always win at the end of the day. The power of hope and will is greater than any computer program.
The social satire is still in ROBOCOP, but in a smaller way. Patrick Novak has a Daily Show/The Corbert Show type of political commentary program where he discusses the world's views on technology. In this remake, most of the world have been using EM-208s and ED-209s to patrol streets and maintain order, limiting threats of terrorism and other dangerous crimes. All countries except for the United States, that is. Novak claims that the United States is "robophobic", feeling that the use of machines would limit the number of human casualities in the police force and the military. It's obviously a remark on war and our national security [politicians with power allegedly have no idea what the citizens want or need]. And while I'm glad there's an attempt at commentary, I wish more was done with it. With so much focus on the human aspect of the story, the idea that they turned a man into a machine as social commentary isn't as effective or as powerful as it could have been. In fact, the Pat Novak stuff is written well, but doesn't come close to what the original had expressed throughout its presentation. Still, it's better than nothing.
The characters are decently written, but that aspect could have been more explored as well. While Murphy is a bit more fleshed out this time around, I wish his wife and son were given the same treatment. Clara is just the stereotypical supportive wife who brings her husband back to reality when he needs it. She's the emotional aspect to Murphy's tale, but we don't really know much about her other than that. Same with their son. The villains, while clear, don't really feel like personal threats to Murphy in any real way. Antoine Vallon is the Clarence replacement, but extremely less memorable. He's the one who hires the hit on Murphy - via a car bomb. Hated how impersonal that was. It made the revenge aspect seem less exciting, compared to the original. Raymond Sellars is the head of OmniCorp and comes across as vindictive in terms of business and making sure things go his way in terms of money and notoriety. He's portrayed as a clearer villain than Vallon, but he doesn't really feel like a threat until the final act, when he tries to shut the RoboCop program down. Rick Mattox, OmniCorp's military tactician, is more of a threat to Murphy, since he makes it quite clear he doesn't approve of his assistance and constantly puts him down.
The only real character that has a ton of depth is Dr. Dennett Norton, the scientist who turns Murphy into RoboCop. He's completely sympathetic to the whole situation. He's against playing God, but realizes he has a job to do and does it. He tries to be a father figure to Murphy through his adaptation, but also tries to drown out Murphy's humanity in order to save his "life", as well as please OmniCorp. In the original film, OmniCorp were all made up of scumbags. So it's nice to see a fresh perspective in the remake. I really enjoyed this character and hope he returns for a sequel, if the film does enough business to make that happen.
The special effects in ROBOCOP, for modern day CGI, are very well done. RoboCop has never looked better, in a new sleeker black outfit perfect for 2014. The EM-208s and the ED-209 look great, especially during action scenes. And the unsuited Murphy after the explosion - wow, surprised that made it under a PG-13 rating. The production design, in general, are just stunning. I enjoy the practical effects from the original, but I loved how everything looked in the reboot. The visual effects were just cool and nothing really seemed too cartoon-ish to take me out of the film. The squad behind the effects did a fantastic job modernizing RoboCop's world for 2014.
The direction by Jose Padilha was also pretty good as well. While I would have loved to have seen what Darren Aronofsky would have done with the original project, Padilha managed to deliver for the most part. I liked that the film had a gritty feel to it, even under a PG-13 rating. The video game aesthetics were there, sometimes making the film feel like a first person shooter. The action scenes had a lot of energy, and are visual eye candy. For a 2 hour film, I never felt bored as the film moved quickly from scene to scene. Plus, did Padilha actually use the Basil Poledouris theme song from the original? YES! I thought Padilha did a very good job bringing the franchise back to life. The script may have been hindered a bit by the rating system and just overall screenplay issues, but I thought the visual presentation was mostly solid.
The acting was more positive than negative. Joel Kinnaman, of AMC's The Killing, was okay as Alex Murphy. He didn't exactly wow me or anything, but he wasn't terrible either. I thought he handled the struggle between humanity and technology pretty well. I'm sure he'll only get better in the sequel. Gary Oldman was the best actor, in my opinion, as Dr. Norton. He made the film for me with his fantastic and serious performance. Not surprising, since Oldman always brings the good. It's always nice to see Michael Keaton back on the big screen, as he's exceptionally subtle as the villianous Raymond Sellars. Hell, I think he can still pull off Batman. Jackie Earle Haley played a bastard really well. Abbie Cornish is beautiful, and does okay as the wife. Felt she was kind of wasted though. Samuel L. Jackson plays Pat Novak like Samuel L. Jackson. So it works. A pretty solid A-list cast makes this film watchable.
THE FINAL HOWL
I think both versions of ROBOCOP are worth a look. The original is such an action/sci-fi classic that's pretty timeless. The remake, while not as good, is definitely a worthy restart to a franchise that really needed it. Both films are fun, with some very good acting, and nice visual presentation. The stronger script and social commentary definitely lies with the 1987 film. But the reboot's take on the familiar story is actually refreshing. If you go in hating the idea of a ROBOCOP reboot, don't bother watching it. It probably won't change how you feel. But if you can go in with an open mind like I did, you'll probably have fun. And when it comes to being entertained, I'd buy that for a dollar!