Reel Rumbles #46: “Robocop” vs. “Robocop”
Part man. Part machine. All cop.
Detroit police officer Alex Murphy has his body broken and is left for dead. When a powerful company interested in supplying mechanical super-soldiers for law enforcement picks up the pieces and outfits Murphy with cybernetic components, he becomes the nigh-invincible Robocop, and winds up solving his own murder.
This forms the basic plot of the 1987 Paul Verhoeven-directed classic, Robocop, as well as the entirely unasked-for remake that is currently in theaters. It’s the latest in a long string of 1980s-themed remakes and sequels that an idea-starved Hollywood has been cranking out for the past decade and a half. Yet die-hard fans of the original may be surprised to learn that this updated Robocop actually brings something new to the table.
Round One: Story
Too often, remakes of popular movies make the mistake of treading the same ground as the original, and bringing forth nothing new, nothing to mark the remake as anything more than a cash grab. And in this way, this year’s Robocop is a refreshing change of pace.
In the 1987 original, the Detroit police force is fighting a losing battle against ever-escalating crime, and Omni Consumer Products (OCP), the mega-conglomerate that bankrolls the police force, seeks to supplement – if not replace – its human police officers with more reliable robotic alternatives.
Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) is a newly-reassigned beat cop who, when he runs afoul of professional monster Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith), is literally blown to pieces by the villain and his gang. As he clings to life, he becomes the perfect candidate for Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer), an OCP executive who is pushing the Robocop program as an alternative to the recently-stalled Enforcement Droid Series 209 (ED-209, for short). With new mechanical parts installed, Robocop starts cleaning up Detroit’s streets, and – as Murphy’s memories begin to resurface – tracks down Boddicker and OCP Senior President Dick Jones (Ronny Cox), who is pulling Boddicker’s strings.
Bringing us firmly into the 21st century, the remake sees ED-209 (and other, more humanoid-looking drones) already in full production, and enjoying massive success in U.S. peacekeeping missions abroad. Yet Americans are hesitant to allow Omnicorp, the company supplying these drones, to unleash them in U.S. cities. No, the good people at home would feel safer with human beings behind all those triggers, and, as such, legislation exists to ban the use of drones, despite their meticulous track record of success.
Enter Detroit police detective Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), who is hideously disfigured and inches from death after a car bombing. The bomb was planted by crime boss Antoine Vallon (Patrick Garrow), whose illegal arms smuggling ring Murphy and his partner undercover, Jack Lewis (Michael K. Williams), were about to bust wide open.
Suddenly, Omnicorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) sees an opportunity: If the American people want the human touch, then bring the man and the machine together to create the best of both worlds. Successful cyberneticist Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) is brought in to – despite his own reservations – turn Murphy into the ultimate weapon, to save the dying detective’s life and, potentially, thousands of others.
The original film presents the potential mechanical replacements as substitutes for a human police force that bleeds, feels fear and fatigue, and threatens to strike when the going gets tough. The remake shows us the drones already in place, and Robocop brought in as an attempt to assuage the public’s fears in a thoroughly post-9/11 setting. Both approaches are topical for their time, and equally effective in introducing their cybernetic hero.
One has to appreciate the original approach taken by the remake of a truly classic film. As such, round one is a draw.
Round Two: Script
Both Robocop movies take a stab at social commentary, examining the idea of man vs. machine. The original is a bit leaner, telling a more straightforward, revenge-driven tale, while the remake chooses to better explore the nature of the man being subsumed by the machine.
The greatest strength of Robocop ’87 is in its broad characterizations, and some truly memorable lines. The true wittiness in the remake is how it makes many subtle nods at the original (some of which only die-hard Robocop fans might catch) while carving its own path.
In the end, its the time taken to examine Alex Murphy as a character that lends a greater strength to the remake. In the original, Murphy’s wife is never even named, appearing only in brief flashbacks; in the remake, Clara Murphy (Abbie Cornish) is fully present, and provides an emotional counterpoint to the main thrust of the story. Murphy is portrayed as a loving husband and father who watches Detroit Red Wings games with his son, and tucks his kid in at night.
By spending a little more time with Murphy as a human being, the remake has a slight advantage in bringing the audience to care a bit more about the character. Advantage: Robocop 2014.
Round Three: Performances
Sadly, the lead actors in both films – Peter Weller and Joel Kinnaman – are better at performing Robocop than the man inside the machine. In Weller’s case, he does have far less screen time as Murphy before he is “murdered” and the robot takes over. Kinnaman’s Murphy has his humanity stripped away much more gradually, which is an interesting contrast. Kinnaman is perfectly adequate in the role, but he is actually more engaging when in full Robocop mode.
In both films, it’s the color supplied by the supporting cast that really makes a difference.
Smith’s Boddicker is so evil, so delightfully vile, that he steals every single scene in the original film. Cox, as corrupt OCP President Jones, chews the scenery with gusto. Robocop‘s villains are nothing if not memorable.
By contrast, in the remake, Garrow’s Vallon – equivalent to the original’s Boddicker – is little more than a plot device, and not half as memorable. Interesting villain duties are left to Michael Keaton, whose Omnicorp CEO Sellars is not so over-the-top as Cox’s Jones, but just as slimy and devious by the film’s end.
The remake’s cast actually shines in other ways. Samuel L. Jackson is at his scenery-chewing best as right-wing TV host Pat Novak. (His show gets cut to repeatedly throughout the film’s run time, rather than the news flashes and random commercials of the original.) Michael K. Williams provides solid support as Murphy’s partner, Lewis. Jay Baruchel has a fun role as Omnicorp’s head of marketing, Tom Pope.
However, the real star in the cast is Gary Oldman, whose Dr. Dennett Norton is just as central to the plot as Murphy. Oldman is excellent as a doctor who finds himself betraying his own principles as he strips Murphy’s humanity away in order to keep the Robocop machine running.
The principal female actors in both films don’t fare quite as well. Nancy Allen, as Murphy’s partner, Lewis, is not quite badass enough in the original, while Abbie Cornish is a little stiff and not quite convincing enough in the remake. Both ladies perform adequately, but are far from the most memorable pieces of their respective films.
In the end, it’s memorable sleaze vs. a healthier dose of heart. Smith alone might be just enough to nudge this round in the original’s direction.
Round Four: Direction
We have here the first Hollywood films from two foreign directors.
Paul Verhoeven was already an established director in his native Netherlands when he made the leap to Hollywood with Robocop. Despite becoming well known for such films as Total Recall, Starship Troopers, Basic Instinct and the ever-infamous Showgirls, Robocop is still one of the biggest feathers in his cap. (It is his second-highest ranked film on Flickchart.) It’s a lean and mean tale, bloody and brutal, and despite some cheesy stop-motion animation, it still holds up today.
José Padilha has a few Brazilian documentaries to his name, but prior to Robocop would probably be best known for Elite Squad and its sequel. Being a product of a different time, his remake has “studio interference” lingering in many frames, but, despite that, is an impressive action film in its own right.
Reportedly, Padilha and Joel Kinnaman lobbied hard for an R rating, but when the anticipated budget ballooned, the studio balked, and forced a PG-13 rating to make the film more marketable. Is it watered down as a result? Perhaps, but the fact remains that while it is far less bloody and has reduced swearing, the new Robocop is still plenty violent, and it goes the extra mile in trying to make Murphy a more relatable character before the Robocop fully takes over. (Alas, the film still features the irksome modern tendency to overuse “shaky-cam” – doubtless a result of the PG-13 leash on the production – and it hurts in a couple of big action scenes.)
Padilha deserves credit for turning out a good movie in spite of forced limitations, but the efficiency and straightforward brutality of Verhoeven’s film tilt this round in the original’s favor.
And the Winner Is…
There is no doubt, heading into a matchup like this, that the original film will come out on top…yet it is a nostalgia vote, more than anything else. The new Robocop deserves to be seen and taken on its own merits, and earns massive points for not just being a watered-down carbon copy of its predecessor. It’s a remake that actually justifies its own existence…and offers a little bit more. It is far better than any Valentine’s Day counter-programming action flick in recent memory (looking at you, A Good Day to Die Hard), and far stronger than many recent ’80s-nostalgia reboots.