The best way to go into any movie is with low expectations. If you expect perfection, you will be disappointed, but if you expect an unwatchable travesty, then you’ll likely be pleasantly surprised. My expectations for the new Robocop were about as low as possible. This was not because I have some loyalty to the 1987 original starring Peter Weller. It’s fine for an 80s action movie, but hardly as iconic as some fans would have us believe. I based the new Robocop on the same criteria I would any new sci-fi movie. Mostly, I want the premise to be plausible, and when I first saw the trailer for the new Robocop, it struck me as a bit too farfetched, but more than that, it seemed too hokey. I expect this from an 80s movie, but putting the exact same premise in a movie in 2014 feels ironically old fashioned in a movie that still clearly takes place in the future.
However, given that my expectations were low, I was able to enjoy Robocop for what it is: a stock, blow ‘em up action movie. The premise is simple enough. Detroit Detective Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is the victim of what should have been a fatal car bomb, leaving most of his body damaged and useless. To save his life, a doctor (Gary Oldman; The Dark Knight) replaced 90% of his body with machinery, getting him back on the streets to solve crimes with laser precision. Alex’s upgrade was commissioned by Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton; Batman) in order to lay the groundwork for legislation making it legal to use artificially intelligent robots to maintain peace in all of America’s major cities. Alex is forced to find the balance between his biology and his software all while trying to figure out who tried to murder him in the first place. The remake adds another layer to Murphy’s struggle for identity by giving him a son (John Paul Ruttan) and wife (Abbie Cornish; Seven Psychopaths), but unfortunately those characters aren’t utilized to their full potential.
There’s something very sterile about Joel Kinnaman’s performance here. Part of it is that for a large chunk of the movie, Murphy’s emotional responses are suppressed and he’s running completely on his Robocop software. But even that is simply the worst of a fairly lifeless performance. Even when Murphy is completely human, his emotions feel forced and inorganic. A fellow cop in one of the opening scenes makes a crack about Murphy’s partner being in the hospital and Murphy understandably gets upset, but I never believe that Kinnaman is actually experiencing any of these emotions.
Some of the other performances, however, give a lot to the movie, and it’s obvious that the actors made the same committed effort on this lackluster action movie as they would on their next great Oscar worthy dramas. Gary Oldman is definitely a highlight, bringing the same depth and intensity to his role here as anything I’ve seen him in. Obviously, he’s made some bad movies recently, but he doesn’t let a losing streak drag him down at all. Oldman runs at this movie full force and delivers a performance full of inner-conflict and nuance that really pops off the screen.
Michael Keaton is also very good as the heartless, profiteer Raymond Sellers. It would be easy for a lesser actor to make that character archetypal and flat, and certainly the script doesn’t do anything to help in that respect, but Keaton subtly defines a noticeable character arc as Murphy’s journey unfolds.
Maybe my favorite part of Robocop is Samuel L. Jackson’s (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) presence. Jackson plays Pat Novak, a right-wing media pundit who uses flashy special effects and eloquent rhetoric to not so subtly support Sellers’s plan to put armed robots on the streets. Jackson’s performance is fun and entertaining, but these scenes are also my least favorite part of the movie because they make a very obvious statement about the role of media in our society. While it’s funny for Novak to be hosting a debate between Sellers and an opposing Senator, our disbelief is disrupted when Novak essentially hangs up on the Senator mid-sentence and simply exclaims that no one could argue against Sellers’s point. If this were a real news broadcast, anyone watching would immediately recognize that as disrespectful and manipulative.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD from 20th Century Fox on June 3.