By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
One way of remaking RoboCop would be to make it brawnier than the original, an easy option after technical leaps depicting movie violence since 1987. Director Jose Padilha decided to try brainier, a challenge because Paul Verhoeven's version is regarded as uniquely sharp satire for science fiction.
This ambitious move mostly works for a promising Brazilian director making his English-language debut. Padilha isn't content with rehashing or one-upping Verhoeven but updating and expanding the fantasy and its dilemmas. As viscerally exciting as Padilha's RoboCop can be, the movie is elevated by serious considerations of the ethics of using robots as guardians (shades of drones), commercialism, playing God with science, and what being human is about. All handled briskly enough to stay out of mayhem's way, but it's nice to actually think during an action flick for a change.
RoboCop also has a playful side that Verhoeven's didn't, starting with Padilha's desecration of MGM's lion logo that introduces Samuel L. Jackson as blustery host of a Fox News-ish TV show called The Novak Report. Steve Novak is stoking a controversy about allowing U.S. police forces to use the same robot patrols as military forces in hot spots overseas, calling opponents of the idea "robo-phobes." Jackson pops in occasionally like a haranguing Greek chorus, comical and helpful to keep the plot rolling.
The use of robots in law enforcement is vital to OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), whose brilliant researcher Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) is making great advances in robotic prosthetics. Meanwhile, a political debate roils on the issue of whether soulless machines should be allowed to decide when to shoot human beings. Sellars' solution for OmniCorp: Put a human inside the machine.
A suitable candidate emerges in crime-ridden Detroit, where tough but tender Det. Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman, TV's The Killing) is left nearly dead by a vengeance car bombing. His wife, Clara (Abbie Cornish), signs off to giving Alex an extreme exoskeleton makeover to save his life. He's transformed into a $2.6 billion man, a sleeker version of Peter Weller's steely look in the original, but equally deadly. And resourceful, learning how to jack himself into crime databases worldwide, cross-reference and set up an arrest calendar before other officers report for duty.
Even the high-tech excitement of RoboCop is regularly paired with something making it seem apart from the norm for Hollywood action. A key element of that is casting Kinnaman, who has none of the remarkable physical traits associated with action heroes. He's a guy from next door, not the gym down the street. Kinnaman's face is passively sharp, with soft eyes, not square-chinned and squinting at danger. A face is practically all Kinnaman has to work with for most of RoboCop, and it's fuller in character than a typical trigger-puller.
Padilha constantly displays an eagerness to bring something unexpected to the table. Look first to the fascinating sequence when Alex becomes aware of his surgical conversion, coming out of a sweet coma dream set to a Frank Sinatra tune. Reverie turns to confused anger then horror as Alex and the audience learn what's left of his actual body. It isn't a pretty sight, once the exoskeleton is stripped away. But it's an inventive effect that's truly special. Later, Padilha stages a warehouse shootout with a monochrome twist on the night vision cliche, enabling automatic weapons fire to create a strobe effect that's fresh.
RoboCop can't avoid the usual third-act trap for action flicks, when action drowns out everything else. Consider it a solid summertime popcorn flick that just happens to be arriving a few months early.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.