Mechanical reboot aspires to break new ground

Robocop
English (U/A) ¬¬¬
Director: Jose Padilha
Cast: Joel Kinnaman, Michael Keaton, Gary Oldman, Abbie Cornish

It is not difficult to go into the theatre to see this film, believing that one is about to see the desecration of a Hollywood icon.

After all, we live in a world where 2012’s Total Recall — an attempted remake of the 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger classic, emerged as one of the most misbegotten pictures to be made in the history of film, and Red Dawn (2012), was a straight-to-dvd offering, and an insult to its star-studded 1984 predecessor.

But this newest incarnation of the robotic supercop Alex Murphy, directed by Brazilian director Jose Padilha, will surprise you.

In the original 1987 Robocop — the first great success of Dutch émigré director Paul Verhoeven — Beat Officer Alex Murphy is ambushed and violently dismembered by a bloodthirsty gang. Pronounced dead, he is handed over the robotics division of Omni Consumer Products (OCP), a tentacle, global corporation whose board-members make Jordan Belfort look like a boy-scout.

While Murphy’s body is catatonic, not so is his febrile mind, which grapples with the violent imagery of his “death,” juxtaposed with warm, near unattainable memories of his wife and child — driving the central narrative of a cyborg wrestling with his latent humanity. The story is also a parable about the evils of corporate greed and evinces Verhoeven’s modus operandi to couch deeply humanized themes in extreme violence or sexuality, within the popular genre.

But Padilha, who won the gig of directing the neo-Robocop because of his previous works, Elite Squad and its sequel, Elite Squad: The Enemy Within (the highest-grossing films in his country), has done something equally curious. He has couched social commentary within this action story.

The original film gave voice to the public’s fear of rising crime. The new Robocop, with its video-game-like thrills, is a diatribe against the American military-industrial complex, jingoism, and the partisanship of the media which has grown appallingly over the last two decades. It is also a grand metaphor for capitalism by moral corruption.

There is the CEO of Omni, Raymond Sellars, a man who has “sold” his soul for profit; his military strongman, Rick Maddox, who for all-purposes, is a mad dog, and the larger-than-life TV anchor, “Pat” Novak, who like General Patton, castigates “whiners” and declares America the greatest country in the world.

Film-goers can watch this film while ignoring its politics, but where it comes to the gem of the story — the examination of Murphy’s fading humanity, the new Robocop proves sub-par. In Verhoeven’s film, the narrative is pushed by the believable relationship between Murphy (Peter Weller) and his partner, Officer Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen) — two gifted, intelligent actors, who have all but fallen off the face of the planet.

In Padilha’s Robocop, the leads may well be the products of an assembly line, in a third-rate acting factory, leaving the show to be stolen by the real talent: Michael Keaton as Sellars and Gary Oldman as Omni’s chief of robotics, Dr Norton. 

No doubt, a sequel is planned but one gets the idea the franchise is already running out of the steam. Everything that could be said about Robocop was said by Verhoeven in the first film. To say anything more would be to milk the cow, even when it has nothing left to give.

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