Sunday, 27 April 2014

"We need to give Americans a figure they can rally behind. We're gonna put a man inside a machine."

With the amount of movie remakes the Hollywood system green lights these days, it seems even the half-decent ones are being drowned out by a never ending torrent of misguided misfires. For every The Departed (2006), there's a Wicker Man (2006) or an Oldboy (2013). So it was no surprise that when a new take on RoboCop (1987) – Paul Verhoeven's beloved satirical science fiction actioner – was announced, fans raced onto the internet to voice their disapproval.

The griping carried on throughout the film's much delayed production. Script leaks suggested a more earnest story stuffed with socio-political allegories. Early pap shots hinted at a redesigned, unmasked robo-suit. And then there was the 12A rating which guaranteed a move away from the glorious ultra-violence of the original. All of which pointed to one thing: sacrilege!

It's a tricky business remaking a classic. Stick too close to the source material and you render yourself redundant, veer too far away and you risk the wrath of hardcore fans. That most of the rumours are true means that this latest version comes dangerously close to the latter. But while it may well irk some of the faithful, it might just win a few over also.

Set in a not too distant 2028, director José Padilha's (Elite Squad) reboot pitches a world where mega-multinational OmniCorp – fronted by ruthless CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) – has become  a major contractor for the US military. Over in the Middle East, its soldier drones and heavy artillery ED-209 units are helping to 'enforce' the peace, whilst back home, its advanced robotics department is helping injured soldiers to walk again. But despite their best efforts, there's one area of business they've yet to crack – securing America's own streets.

With US citizens unwilling to accept a police force made up of faceless robots, Sellars devises an audacious solution – fuse a real cop with an artificial body. Enter Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), a principled young detective left mortally wounded after a brutal assassination attempt. He's a prime candidate for the public to rally behind – a family man with a fierce commitment to justice.

But despite OmniCorp's attempts to control their latest 'product', Murphy isn't quite ready to play the puppet – as Gary Oldman's (The Dark Knight Rises) conflicted, Dr. Frankenstein-like creator warns: "Compassion, fear, instinct, they will always interfere with the system!".

Just like the original, the struggle between man and machine forms the backbone, though here the concept is upended. In place of Peter Weller's detached cyborg, Kinnaman is painfully aware of what's happened to him. In fact, it's the dubious attempts of OmniCorp to suppress Murphy's humanity that provides much of the story's morally murky edge. This is also where the redesigned suit starts to make sense. Kinnaman's frequently exposed visage requires the actor to do a lot more dramatic lifting – especially in the scenes involving Murphy's wife (Abbie Cornish) and young son – making for a more easily relatable and sympathetic hero.

That's not to say the titular metal man has gone all emotional. When the visor does come down and he enters 'Combat Mode' (not as naff as it sounds), it's time for business. As in Verhoeven's film, the story really kicks into gear when Murphy ignores his programming and goes after his own killers.

And while this version does feel somewhat toned down – with no melting men or machine gun mangled bodies in sight – Padilha at least captures the action with a frenetic, handheld ferocity reminiscent of his Elite Squad (2007) movies, as his streamlined enforcer guns his way through a series of intense set piece shootouts.

And yet, even among all the big ideas, Padilha still finds room for a few lighter touches. Not all of it works – Jay Baruchel's (Cosmopolis) smarmy marketing man grates, while some of the script's more knowing one-liners feel awkwardly out of place. More successful is Samuel L. Jackson's (The Avengers) network host Pat Novak – a biased supporter of mechanised crime control whose scenery-chewing, monologue-heavy propaganda interludes channel the cheeky spirit of the original.

Ultimately, Padilha's update succeeds because it logically ports the core concept into a future that feels much closer to our own. A few cutesy nods to Verhoeven's film aside – the instantly hummable Basil Poledouris score excerpts, the thigh-ejecting gun holster – Padilha has successfully crafted a smart, thrilling science fiction outing, different enough to exist on its own terms without ignoring or disrespecting its roots.

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