Congratulations, Detroit. In 1987, Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop cemented it as the most violent city in the world, an honor the Motor City resented for decades until its powers that be realized they may as well erect a statue of Peter Weller and milk the tourism. Twenty-seven years later, the attention has shifted to Tehran. José Padilha’s RoboCop opens on a news broadcast of soldier-bots terrorizing the Iranian population -- make that “promoting peace and freedom abroad,” as hawkish TV host Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson) insists. The feed cuts out as suicide bombers rush the robots. By contrast, the gun smugglers of Detroit look practically genteel.
Still, as ever, in the future America of this new RoboCop, there’s a segment of our populace that worships guns, ammo and overkill. Grumbles Novak, “Why is America so robo-phobic?” Despite a law forbidding machine-made police from patrolling our own streets, he’d like to see them protecting the States. So would CEO Raymond Sellers (Michael Keaton) of the robot-manufacturing OmniCorp, mainly because head analyst Jay Baruchel has calculated that there’s a potential $600 billion market. And they’ve found a loophole: OmniCorp can win the hearts and minds of voters by putting the heart and mind of a human being inside a synthetic skeleton.
The setup is different in this update, but the end goal is the same: A good cop named Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is doomed to be OmniCorp’s test case. Only this is a kinder, gentler RoboCop. It’s impossible not to be -- Verhoeven’s original was first rated X for extreme violence. He had to re-submit it 11 more times before the MPAA grudgingly gave it an R. Today’s world is PG-13, the better to sell tickets to teen boys, which means Murphy no longer loses his body in a brutal, limb-shredding hail of gunfire but in a tasteful car bomb. We hear that Murphy’s lost an arm, a leg, an eye, and 80 percent of his skin, but we don’t actually have to see him flayed open like Jesus of Michigan.
Padilha and screenwriter Joshua Zetumer have shifted the stakes. Where Verhoeven, a Dutch director just beginning his English-language career, seized the chance to make a satire about gas-guzzling, ultraviolent Americans, Padilha, a Brazilian director also starting his English-language career after the excellent Rio police corruption flicks Elite Squad and Elite Squad 2, wants to play nice. Instead of a nightmarish, dystopian Detroit, this RoboCop feels like it could take place in a not-too-bad tomorrow. What scares us in 2014 isn’t that we could someday make a robot Murphy. It’s that we probably already can. And will, even though we don’t need to.
The twist of the reboot is that scientist Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman, the go-to for guilt-ridden geniuses) is too good at engineering a conscience into his creation. Mechanized Murphy isn’t a memory-wiped, baby-food-eating monstrosity. He’s a real man, or at least the brain, lungs and larynx of a real man, with a personality, a life and a wife (Abbie Cornish) who signed the release papers permitting OmniCorp to rebuild her husband. (In a sly dig, he’s now manufactured in China.)
If only this genteel RoboCop dared to include a frank talk about whether they could weld in a flip-up Hitachi Magic Wand. But Padilha doesn’t want to bother with jokes. What really interests him is watching OmniCorp’s marketing strategists take a product, I mean person, who works, and then chip away at the man inside in order to sell him better. The horror of Murphy’s robotization happens in slow motion. If his human empathy makes a rescue op take half a minute longer, shave it down. If he gets emotional, adjust his dopamine. If he’s tracking as too lovable, paint him black. Incrementally, Murphy is stripped of conscience, free will and hormones until he’s reduced to a flatlined android. He’s no longer limited by technology -- he’s limited by focus groups.
We’ve swapped out body horror for mental anguish, Verhoeven’s macabre sci-fi opera for Padilha’s clear-eyed cautionary tale. But Kinnaman, so great as a shady, underestimated cop in The Killing, can’t quite channel Murphy’s agony. Ironically, it’s the blankness of Peter Weller’s original RoboCop that made him effective. We could ascribe emotions to him, and Weller’s monotone delivery gave his quips a droll kick (also the secret to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ’80s success). Kinnaman can act more, but it resonates less. We need to be horrified by him or for him. Instead, we just like him. And that’s not enough.
In fact, that’s the problem with the whole film. Every bit of it is more advanced: The actors are better, the plot is tighter, the special effects sleeker, the messages more heartfelt. Yet it lacks Verhoeven’s bloody, biting scream. If OmniCorp’s frustration with Murphy is that he was too uncontrollably human, this RoboCop proves the point double. It’s an entertaining enough film, one that we’d applaud politely if it existed in a vacuum. It’s a feat of Hollywood engineering. But its soul is missing.