In the sea of remakes, reboots and reimaginings that now dominate the major studios in Hollywood, RoboCop is one of the few that doesn't trade almost exclusively on nostalgia. It has that luxury because it deals in drones, the integration of humans with machines, police militarization, big data and so forth -- themes that are eerily relevant in 2014.
Director Jose Padilha shrewdly plays up those elements, and, in pairing them with slick action sequences and a capable cast, manages a rare accomplishment: a remake that doesn't end up feeling like a superfluous jaunt down memory lane.
Joel Kinnaman plays Alex Murphy, an honest cop in the deeply corrupt Detroit Police Department of 2028. When a car bomb explodes on his doorstep and leaves him near death, the ominously named OmniCorp offers his wife, Clara (Abbie Cornish), a chance to keep him alive.
And so what little is left of Alex Murphy -- his mind, his lungs, his left hand -- ends up encased in a sleeker, blacker updated version of the iconic RoboCop suit. Murphy survives only because of the handiwork of a conflicted doctor, Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), who is working at the behest of OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton). Sellars sees Murphy as a means to an end -- a human-machine hybrid that will help his company expand in to America where drone policing is outlawed.
Kinnaman, in lockstep, channels a man who can sense that he is a pawn in a game he never really wanted to play. He does what he can to attempt to bring his would-be killers to justice and to reconnect with his wife and son, but every feint at humanity has Sellars and Dr. Norton making modifications to suck more humanity out of him, to fine-tune him as a policing machine at the expense of his free will.
All in all, this is a surprisingly captivating blend — the intimate, personal struggle of Alex Murphy brought back from the dead as something not entirely himself, the ethical quandary of Dr. Norton as he tries to do right by his patient and by his determined boss Sellars, the post-industrial robber baron Sellars, who seems to have taken Ayn Rand to heart a little bit too much.
Keaton’s villainous performance as a morally bankrupt capitalist and the Sean Hannity-esque character, Pat Novak, portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson give RoboCop a cartoonish feel. It’s a thin, silly veneer over some serious and relevant themes. Detroit (and America) in 2028 is wrestling with the use of drones, an increasingly militarized, cold and distant police force. It lends too much influence to the wealthy and powerful — an elite class with the ability to shape the laws of the land to their personal influence. Sound familiar?
Framed in that way, 2028 Detroit doesn’t sound so much like a dystopian vision of the near future as it does like a chillingly accurate alt-universe version of the present. Kinnaman, Keaton and Oldman help make Padilha’s film good fun — but not too much fun, not with the pointed allegory bubbling right under the surface.