“RoboCop” (2014): Failing a Staircase (Review)

I’ve noticed something about reviews of movies that have a lineage of some kind. Oftentimes, someone will say something negative about what a movie does and people will accuse that person of being too beholden to the original creation and unwilling to bend his/her perception of creativity. I know this because I do that all the time.

I think there’s always room for re-interpretation of something existing, and though I’m tired of the current trends of resurrecting old movies for remakes purely for deficiencies in the supply of original ideas, I don’t believe in begrudging a film for changing its style or even its substance on a conceptual level. I only care (or at least try my best to only care) about execution. For example, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug has a lot of problems, but one famous subject of fanboy ire that I do not share was that of Tauriel and the “love triangle.” Sure, it’s entirely contrived and hogs too much screen time, but she’s a strong character, a great action hero, and one of the few people in the film who actually has some semblance of control over the plot. BLAH, BLAH, BLAH; SHUT UP ABOUT THE HOBBIT ALREADY, VIVEK!!!

Okay, okay! My point is that I tend to cut remakes a lot of slack.

With that in mind, RoboCop is awful – a two-hour soul drain. It’s the worst movie I’ve seen since August Osage County and the worst remake I’ve seen since The Lone Ranger. The only reason it *probably* isn’t the worst film in theaters as we speak is because it’s airing at the same time as Winter’s Tale, (which I haven’t yet seen but is reported to be the worst & most abject failure of a film in years). My disgust and hatred for it, however, has nothing to do with how much I love and respect the original, because it’s all about execution. This is exactly the kind of bland, toxic, mind-rotting, and stagnating sludge of cinema that critics everywhere decry as the doom of the medium and they are right to do so.

Of course, I do love the original. It’s one of the best films of 1987, one of the best sci-fi action movies of its decade, and a classic for the ages. If you haven’t seen it, I won’t spoil it or talk about it here. Just know that it’s a smart and vibrant film that belches fire and sinks its saber-teeth into the politics of that decade like few others like it. So go see it.

The remake opens up with Samuel Jackson’s TV personality introducing us to an occupied Tehran, whose streets are patrolled by the U.S. military in the form of heavily armed robots. We’re given no context for this – why they’re there, what led to the invasion, why/how the military got almost completely mechanized, or even how it all works. It’s just a competently-shot five-minute setpiece starring a mostly innocent Persian family…because apparently we need to be shown that this is bad…as if we didn’t know already. The worst part is that once the movie leaves that area, not only does it never go back, but it’s never even mentioned again.

From there, we’re brought to the States, where Jackson tells us that though we employ robots overseas to fight our wars, we refuse to deploy them domestically as crime fighting units in the streets because we’re driven by fear and stuck in our old ways. Cue contrived political dilemma where apparently one Senator is fighting to uphold his own standing law prohibiting robots being used in law enforcement and multinational corporate conglomerate OmniCorp (OCP)’s big bad CEO Raymond Sellars is annoyed and determined to find a workaround that the public will look upon favorably to get the law repealed.

Enter Alex Murphy, a hot-headed and sturdy cop who vows to bring a criminal down after they nearly kill his partner, only for that criminal (who has no personality and nothing else to do) to nearly kill him in a car explosion. Murphy becomes the perfect subject OCP decides it needs to try and put a human face to its mechanical creations. From there, the movie is all about how they condition Murphy as a crime fighting unit, drive stakes between him and his family, and how Murphy’s moral human side fights back & inevitably overrides the programming they instilled upon him. This is all as generic and washed up as it sounds.

First of all, the acting is terrible. Joel Kinnaman has the combined chops of Sam Worthington & Matthew Fox and not even as much on-screen charisma as either of them. Keaton is boring. Even Gary Oldman is miserable and I can’t even remember the last bad performance from him before this. Samuel Jackson is okay, but he’s utterly bored and was only hired so he could blurt out a bleeped “motherf***er.” Jay Baruchel is in this movie because the creators saw how awesome Charlie Day was in Pacific Rim and thought they’d replicate it, except his presence in the film is more reminiscent of Denis Leary’s head-scratching casting choice as Captain Stacy in The Amazing Spider-Man. The only two guys who look like they might be having a little fun are Jackie Earle Haley and Michael K. Williams. I love both of those guys, but seriously, what are either of them doing in this movie?

Abbie Cornish is fine, though, managing to be the only character really worth sympathizing.

Speaking of swearing…normally remakes get into trouble for trying too hard to match or upstage their predecessor on certain key defining moments (Evil Dead and Oldboy for example). Rarely do we see a remake deliberately neuter its own property. And it doesn’t reflect this ostensibly family-friendly outlook in any way besides the swearing. About the only memorable thing in the movie is the fact that you see Murphy’s actual lungs multiple times, and there’s even one scene where the doctor is literally picking at his brain to reprogram him.  But it’s all so dry.

This film struggles to maintain cohesion because it has no idea what it wants to be and no idea how to actually be anything. It thinks it’s honoring the original by taking meaningless pot shots at it. It isn’t. It thinks it’s grabbing at and remarking strongly upon relevant political and economic touchstones because it brings up drone warfare, mentions Iraq and Afghanistan once, and shows the U.S. occupying Tehran. It isn’t. It thinks it’s cleverly satirizing biased and manipulative personality-driven media. It isn’t. It thinks it’s displaying an honest and human family struggle. It isn’t. It thinks it’s a big flashy action movie. There’s maybe one action bit worth remembering. It’s bloodless, haphazard, and just boring. This RoboCop jumps back and forth tonally between all of these things and can’t find itself among any of them. It walks in the shadow of J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot but can’t be even half as compelling as that.

There were plenty of ways it could have used its premises to its advantage. The idea of Murphy being tricked into thinking that he’s in control of the machine is a neat one that they instead reduce to human sedation and then spiritual awakening. If we had gotten a better sense of his family’s circumstances – if they were, for example, reeling from debts or on the verge of losing their house – the film could have used Murphy’s devotion to his family as the emotional and mental push. If the film didn’t put up a pseudo-touching scene in the beginning of a random man with robotic hands trying to achieve emotional balance through playing the guitar and then completely forget about it, they could have had Murphy try to train himself to achieve that very same balance and have that be the hook of the film. Like, have him learn a tough lesson about self-control when his anger makes him sloppy in a fight. If the film went the political route, it could have expanded the lessons from the original film to why a single tycoon or confederation of corporate bigwigs shouldn’t ever be given authority to run the military.

But no.

This is a movie that doesn’t know what made the original so awesome and amounts to being just another bland assembly-line sci-fi action movie with a bloated ego. There not one interesting character, no nuance to its story, no funny line or joke, no hook, and no lasting impression at all. Though it’s an objectively worse film than this, I might actually prefer The Amazing Spider-Man because at least there, I can feel a sense of pride and accomplishment by tearing that horrid monster down. I can’t imagine very many people coming out of this film with even a quarter of the enthusiasm I had after I saw The LEGO Movie. RoboCop (2014) has no legacy and doesn’t even belong in the $5 movie bin at Walmart.

I sure as hell wouldn’t buy that for a dollar.

The Good: Cool motorcycle.
The Bad: The action, the acting from everyone besides Abbie Cornish, and the beginning.

Overall: 3.5/10

Written By Vivek Subramanyam

Vivek is a handsome, talented, well-spoken political aficionado and part-time film critic who totally never ever writes mini-bios about himself.

Follow him on Twitter @VerverkS or check out his blog V for Verbatim.

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  • fernandorafael_c2c

    Reading this review is a joy! Thanks, Vivek. Great write-up.
    ALso, wow, didn’t know you hated August: Osage County so much.

  • Vivek Subramanyam

    I was going to review it a while ago when it was relevant. Then I heard this from my buddy MovieBob and now I don’t have to.

    “Do you like watching otherwise good actors playing a soap opera stable of dysfunctional family stock characters sitting around a table spitting out self-revelatory exposition that probably worked in the play but slop out like some kind of Caucasian Taylor Novella cheese-wiz on screen in heavily-affected pan-Midwestern accents while Her Royal Hamness Meryl Streep cackles out mechanically telegraphed cutting remarks on cue like a Gatling gun loaded with would-be Oscar clips? Have I got a movie for you! Or perhaps someone you hate and have to take to a movie!”

    Yep, that sums up “August Osage County” pretty much perfectly. It’s the “Les Miserables” of 2013.

  • Rodney

    Hmm, I liked Les Mis a lot, so I guess I’ll have the check out Osage County now to be sure it’s crap….

  • Rodney

    Nothing about this film has appealed to me, right from the get-go. I guess I’ll see it eventually, but I’ll always be comparing it to verhoeven’s original, which remains a childhood favorite. Yes, I watched RoboCop as a child. I think my parents thought because it had “cop” in the title, it couldn’t be all bad…..

  • Vivek Subramanyam

    Acting in “Les Mis” was mostly fine but the cinematography is almost as bad as “Battlefield Earth” and completely kills the experience. It’s utterly exhausting. But that’s just me.

  • fernandorafael_c2c

    That is hilarious! And that’s coming from someone who loved August: Osage County.

  • Sverrir Sigfússon

    Terrific decimation, you really tore it apart. I didn’t feel that strongly on it; never really made me angry or actively bored. The film itself was very confused though, with character motivations basically fitting each scene not any sort of overall picture (Gary Oldman’s (whose performance I felt was perfectly fine) character being the main offender). The script is giant pile of flaming garbage and it’s nowhere near as hard hitting and emotional as it wants to be (and as it thinks it is).

    Was pretty set on a 4 on IMDB for it but the ending with Samuel L. Jackson made me laugh quite a bit so that bumps it up to a thoroughly mediocre, average 5.

  • Vivek Subramanyam

    I’m a little hard on the acting here just because they can’t sell the script. Granted, that script is impossible to sell, but I just don’t see a lot of energy from them. Disappointing, I guess. Samuel Jackson nearly always gets me when he says “Motherfucker” but I just wasn’t amused by him at all. Oh well.