LIKE A MACHINE, we can take RoboCop apart, breaking it down to discrete components: Writing. Directing. Acting. Editing. And disassembled, just about every piece of 2014's RoboCop remake is better than the corresponding piece of 1987's RoboCop.
But there's a strange, beautiful alchemy that bubbles and hisses when one speaks of transcendent concepts such as robot cops. Par exemple: Despite each of its parts being better, 2014's RoboCop is not as good as 1987's RoboCop.
In the last 27 years, Paul Verhoeven's goofy sci-fi action satire about a cyborg police officer (the classic tagline: "Part Man, Part Machine. All Cop.") has gained an unexpected patina of veneration. Like all of Verhoeven's movies, RoboCop is fucking weird. Unlike all of Verhoeven's movies, RoboCop neatly collects all the director's best trademarks: dark humor, ludicrous action, and splattery violence. There are those who speak of Verhoeven's RoboCop as chrome-plated perfection, and to give them—and Verhoeven—due credit, there are moments in the original RoboCop that're pretty amazing.
Though it'll anger Verhoeven's diehard fans to hear it, there are some pretty great moments in this new RoboCop, too. Brazilian director José Padilha—best known for the two excellent, intense Elite Squad movies—takes a screenplay by Joshua Zetumer and heads into largely new territory, starting with a loaded opening sequence in Tehran. It's 2028, and America's drones—manufactured by military-industrial complex leader OmniCorp—have become bigger, smarter, and even more effective at blowing up brown people. Alas, the "robo-phobic" American populace keeps OmniCorp from exploiting the domestic market—until OmniCorp's CEO (Michael Keaton, doing his best Steve Jobs) hits on the idea of putting a man inside one of his machines. Enter a mad scientist played by Gary Oldman, and enter Detroit cop Alex Murphy (a likeable Joel Kinnaman), who, rather conveniently, was recently car-bombed into goopy bits. When Murphy next wakes up, he's part man, part machine, and all cop.
RoboCop is a contemporary remake, which means it's louder and shakier than its predecessor—but it also feels more earnest. By trading Verhoeven's cartoony gore-splosions for the squick of up-close body horror, and by focusing on Murphy's emotional struggles with being part machine (his wife and son aren't exactly stoked about RoboDad), Padilha's film is less an action movie and more a character study. The surprising thing is how well this works (a possible new tagline might be "RoboCop: Not a Bad Drama!"). Padilha also sneaks in some questions about free will, privatized security, and government surveillance, and even if his answers don't amount to much, at least his tone is appropriately arch: The Wizard of Oz's "If I Only Had a Heart" comes into play, and more importantly, so does the Clash's "I Fought the Law." It's only in its final act, when RoboCop turns into an all-out action movie, that things start to ring hollow.
While all the parts generally work—the script is decent, the visuals are slick, and Kinnaman, Keaton, and Oldman are solid—there's one piston that fires too rarely: Samuel L. Jackson as TV pundit Pat Novak. With righteous monologues and flailing arms, Novak wears an American pin on his lapel and smooth white hair at his temples, and on The Novak Element, he shouts right at his audience—and right at the audience of RoboCop—to get behind the future of law enforcement. Jackson's Novak is a creepy, hilarious riff on the likes of Bill O'Reilly, and whenever he's onscreen RoboCop's edge grows sharper and meaner. There's no doubt that this RoboCop is a well-made machine, but Jackson's an unpredictable, live-wire reminder of what made the original RoboCop memorable: Nothing about it felt mechanical.