Good news! The future is hilarious.
In some ways, the 2014 RoboCop reboot is better and more vibrant than you would expect. There’s a self-aware quality to the story and its actors that is absolutely key to making its setting, America and Detroit in the year 2028, fully believable. Even 14 years away, this is a not-too-distant future that you can readily imagine RoboCop emerging into, with all the benefits and drawbacks that this entails.
At the same time, you can’t take RoboCop too seriously.
Mostly this is because Samuel L. Jackson and Michael Keaton won’t let you. Jackson opens and closes the movie as Pat Novak, a frothing lunatic with his own news pundit show The Novak Element. Novak is a man who gleefully parrots whatever agenda his “guests” demand, be they top-level Pentagon generals or Michael Keaton himself, playing the CEO of the largest company in the world, Omnicorp. Everything they want is good, everything they want is progress, and if you don’t agree then get ready to have Jackson yell and yell and yell at you until you give in.
Omnicorp’s agenda is one of brazen, naked profit, marching forth under the guise of a safer world. Its robots, walking ED-209 tanks, and stealth drones patrol the streets of the planet, drawing the information for their actions from what we can only assume is a flawless database of who is Bad and who is Not.
The security theater on display is instantly familiar and chilling as a result. Some of the futuristic technologies you see on display in the movie are in use now, RoboCop just extrapolates their use to a more widespread level. The movie opens in Tehran, which the U.S. has unquestionably invaded and taken. Omnicorp drones patrol the streets and force people from their homes in order to be catalogued.
Novak’s on-location crew is there, too, accompanied by military and aiming to do a puff piece on the effectiveness of Omnicorp’s machinery. They are on the ground when they stumble into one of the biggest stories of the year—an insurgent suicide bombing of the robot procession—which Novak chooses not to have filmed. We're shown that the point of the insurgent’s attack is not to kill any bystanders, it’s to die on live television to demonstrate their protest against this machine occupation. Their protest goes unfilmed and the Omnicorp robots cut them down immediately. They die for nothing.
After establishing the state of the world, the majority of the movie focuses in on Detroit and the story of how Alex Murphy gets manipulated into becoming RoboCop. While Novak’s political rhetoric still hilariously frames the story, the movie dials back the commentary and just focuses on what it would be like to go from human to robot. (Well, crime-fighting cyborg.)
In addition to introducing the state of the future, the opening sequence demonstrates how unstoppable Keaton’s CEO character is when he sets his sights on a goal. Keaton has things under control, and you can literally see the spring in his step in regards to how pleased that makes him. Nothing is out of reach. Even though America does not allow Omnicorp to operate robots or drones within the U.S., you know he’ll figure out an entertaining way around that. He’s just so jaunty! And his mouthpiece Novak is so yelly! Those two can cram anything down America’s throat.
RoboCop himself is of course the...thing...America gets crammed down its throat. (Really should have thought about that comparison before I wrote it...) Despite the updated-for-the-21st-century context, the RoboCop reboot follows the same course as the original movie. RoboCop gets created to be a ultimate crime-fighting tool, his humanity wins out, and he weeds out corruption on every level, from the people who tried to kill him to the people who made him.
The humor of the original comes through in the over-arching story of Omnicorp and the general WTFery of the media machine around RoboCop, and it’s so potent that it allows the biggest plotholes to pass by without derision. In fact, their presence just makes the movie funnier. At his own unveiling, RoboCop spots a multiple murderer-rapist in the crowd and promptly tases him. In the next scene, Samuel L. Jackson makes fun of how stupid a murderer must be to attend the unveiling of a robot cop.
This cleverness and vibrancy are largely absent in the tale of how Cop becomes RoboCop. Some of it is due to how stiff Joel Kinnaman is as the titular character, and how weak the Wife and Child characters are. Even though it doesn’t take long for him to get betrayed by his cop buddies, you’re still counting down the minutes until the movie can get on to making him a robot cop. And even after that event the movie throws in little twists to keep you paying attention. (Ever wondered what RoboCop looks like without the armor? You’ll see it. You’ll see it soooo much.) The movie doesn't seem to want to invest too much time in this area, either, as it later skips two important confrontations entirely. (See if you can spot them!)
Although thanks to this constant duck-and-weave, RoboCop moves along at a fine pace. Where it really only falls down is in its action scenes, which are entirely button-mashing affairs. RoboCop marches forward resolutely and shoots a bunch of robots all around him. Then later he runs down a hall and shoots a bunch of arms dealers, including the guy who exploded him. Then in the climax he shoots some ED-209s a lot until they fall down. Even though the filmmakers had a robot as their main character, he never really physically does anything a human couldn’t do. (Except get shot a bunch. And one other thing that is probably a spoiler.) The action sequences suffer from a decided lack of the cleverness that makes the rest of the film so enjoyable.
In the end, fans of the original RoboCop film are not going to find a worthy reboot or successor, but it’s an entertaining movie nonetheless. Samuel L. Jackson alone is in top entertaining form. (I suspect they only had him for the initial bonkers opening scene, then saw how amazing he was at being bonkers and hurriedly asked him back for the whole film.) Pretty much everything that happens at Omnicorp is fun to watch, and the movie doesn’t try to beat you over the head with political and moral arguments; it simply presents some scenarios as food for thought, and tries to have fun with the rest.
It’s not a complicated movie. If you think you’ll like it based on what you’ve seen already, then you probably will. And if you see it, definitely pay attention to the news crawl at the bottom of the Novak screens. If only to see that in the year 2028, “NASA approves hookers to travel with astronauts in space.”