No matter what you think of director Paul Verhoeven's movies, the one thing you could never call them is dull. Whether it's Showgirls or Total Recall, Basic Instinct or Starship Troopers, they've got this giddy, slightly demented intensity that makes them feel campy, exuberant, alive. A Dutch filmmaker endlessly fascinated and yet repulsed by American excess, he constructed movies that were both perfect models of Hollywood genres and bizarre satires of them. Even when they weren't good, they were gonzo.
His 1987 movie RoboCop has been remade, and while it's not terrible, what's most disappointing about it is that it lacks that juice Verhoeven's films always had in crazy abundance. Serious-minded and sincere, this new version rarely rises above a grim competence that keeps you watching, but not really engaged. It's been updated to seem relevant, but mostly it just feels old and mechanical.
Directed by Brazilian filmmaker José Padilha, the remake (set in 2028) stars Joel Kinnaman as Alex Murphy, a dedicated Detroit detective who ends up in critical condition after some crooks wire his car with explosives. But before he dies, Murphy is revived thanks to a powerful, insidious robotics corporation named OmniCorp (headed by Michael Keaton's Raymond Sellars) that merges Murphy's mind with a metal body. Sellars wants to sell the U.S. public on the idea of robot cops, and so Murphy becomes the company's PR tool, cleaning up crime at an incredible rate.
If you've seen Verhoeven's RoboCop, you don't need any more plot description—while there are some major changes, this reboot doesn't significantly shift the original's emotional through-line. A modern-day Frankenstein story mixed with commentary about the nature of the soul, Padilha's movie starts off promisingly, not just establishing Kinnaman as an effectively no-nonsense Murphy but also introducing Keaton's haughty CEO and Gary Oldman as a doctor who's sympathetic to Murphy's plight and who wants to ease the man's difficult transition into a Tin Man. In its early stretches, this RoboCop emphasizes Murphy's trauma and anguish. (It's not hard to see parallels between Murphy's ordeal and American troops returning home after losing limbs, struggling to make themselves whole again.)
But while the reboot doesn't need to slavishly adhere to Verhoeven's goofy-satiric tone, I wish it hadn't settled for that most familiar of 21st-century cinematic attitudes: determined somberness laced with easy, not-as-provocative-as-it-thinks-it-is social commentary.
From the get-go, Padilha's film makes it obvious that it's meant to be a stern condemnation of America's world-policeman bullying, specifically calling out the morality of our drone program. (Sellars pitches his RoboCops as a way to make citizens feel safer without endangering law-enforcement lives.) But because there's no insight—not to mention no danger—in its political targets, this RoboCop thuds along, telling a familiar story full of trite societal metaphors. (Sellars represents Big Business; Samuel L. Jackson's jingoistic talk-show host is a stand-in for Fox News.)
What made the original great wasn't necessarily the novelty of its plot but, rather, the way it was executed. Verhoeven and screenwriters Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner's film wasn't a comedy per se, but they brought a wised-up attitude to the sci-fi conventions, making their villains wonderfully slimy and their futuristic America a sensation-crazed cesspool that was like ours, just crasser. By getting us to laugh at the absurdities and inanities of its Old Detroit, the '87 film had a subversive kick to it, mocking American consumerism and cultural bankruptcy and thrilling to it at the same time. We didn't mind that they were skewering us.
None of that happens in this new RoboCop. (Another crucial difference: The original was a hard R, while the new film is an all-audience PG-13, a further sign of the neutering that's taken place.) Padilha helped make his name directing the gritty, propulsive Elite Squad films, and he brings that same adrenalized action to this movie's set pieces. But there aren't enough of them, and because he shows little aptitude for satire or character development, the remake starts to run aground, stuffed with thoughtful ideas that no one has bothered fleshing out. Murphy's wife, played by Abbie Cornish, is supposed to stir the man who's still alive there in the machine, but his journey to rediscover his humanity feels pedestrian, just like the eventual showdown between Murphy and Sellars. The original RoboCop isn't above reproach, but like a lot of Verhoeven's movies, its strengths and flaws are all bound together in such a nutty package that it's very difficult to untangle them without ruining the whole thing. This new film can't even get the "I'd buy that for a dollar!" joke right.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.