“RoboCop,” the 1987 action satire directed by Paul Verhoeven, was one of the most cynically ingenious films of its era. It both exploited the aggressive aesthetic of ’80s stars Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger and subtly mocked it, all the while delivering prescient observations about Reagan-era privatization and corporate will to power.
The original “RoboCop” was so good, in fact, that it counts as one of those films that doesn’t need to be remade; on the other hand, at a time when so many of the futuristic realities it posited have come to pass in the form of prosthetics, drones and surveillance technology, it couldn’t be a better time to revisit and recast the film’s cardinal themes. Like Bob Dylan, James Bond and “Tonight Show” hosts, perhaps every era should get the “RoboCop” it deserves.
In the hands of director José Padilha (“Bus 174,” “Elite Squad”), the “RoboCop” of today manages to meet expectations without exceeding them. Lightly following the original story line by screenwriters Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner, this iteration makes a few tweaks here and there, hewing to the most recognizable contours but dispensing with the most hard-edged violence and gore. (This “RoboCop” has been retooled by screenwriter Joshua Zetumer.) Police officer Alex Murphy is still an upright Detroit cop battling crime on the streets and corruption inside his precinct; when an explosion takes his life, he is whisked away by the bright and shiny company OmniCorp and reconfigured as a part-human cyborg, the perfect melding of man and machine and an ideal marketing tool for selling Americans on the idea of robotic law enforcement.
The Swedish actor Joel Kinnaman — familiar to some viewers from his starring role on the AMC series “The Killing” — plays Murphy with convincing melancholy and conviction. And when the visor comes down on his bionic body armor, his lower face bears a striking resemblance to Peter Weller, who so memorably originated the role. Padilha has assembled a supporting cast that conveys both the gravitas and parodic humor that intertwine through “RoboCop’s” singular DNA: Michael Keaton projects equal parts menace and yuppie blandness as OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars; Gary Oldman is all apologies as Murphy’s benevolent Dr. Frankenstein, Dennett Norton; Abbie Cornish delivers a solemn portrayal of Murphy’s confused wife; and Samuel L. Jackson pops up periodically as a goofy Greek chorus in the form of a bloviating TV pundit.
All of the ingredients are there, and as “RoboCop” opens — with a scene of OmniCorp robots “pacifying” a neighborhood in Tehran — it looks as if the movie will locate Murphy within a wider post-9/11 world and globalized economy, a rich vein for the caustic satire for which the original was known. But with the exception of a terrific scene in which Murphy tries to escape OmniCorp’s testing facility in China, Padilha ignores that opportunity. Even when the action gets back to Detroit, he seems more interested in explosive (but largely bloodless) firefights, heavy ordnance and cool-but-bland visual effects than sharp social commentary.
Every action movie these days, it seems, has to end up as “Transformers,” and Padilha’s “RoboCop” is no exception. The action is incendiary, frantic and, ultimately, enervating. Fans of the original movie will recognize some of its best lines (one of which is expertly delivered by Jackie Earl Haley, as an OmniCorp minion), as well as Murphy classics, wherein he delivers niceties and beat-cop jargon in a stiff, robotic bark.
For all its playfulness, the new “RoboCop” can’t help but lack the novelty of the original’s jolting mixture of dumb-smart irony and visceral pulp. Despite Kinnaman’s sympathetic performance, his 2.6 Billion Dollar Man’s existential dilemma — revolving around the question of whether emotion can override circuitry and programming — never feels high-stakes. Presumably, “RoboCop,” like its cobbled-together protagonist, is beginning life anew as yet another franchise. But it does so with much of its potential vaguely unrealized, like one of Murphy’s phantom limbs.
At area theaters. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action, including frenetic gun violence throughout, brief strong profanity, sensuality and some drug material. 110 minutes.