Triumph of the will

01:07, Feb 15 2014

Directed by Jose Padilha
Screenplay by Joshua Zetumer

Generation Xers beware - this isn't the ballad of Detroit policeman Alex Murphy you remember.

For while this sci-fi actioner might share the same moniker as Paul Verhoeven's 1987 teen video-rental favourite, B-Movie classic and strangle its prescient storyline (Detroit really did go bankrupt, didn't it), it's a very different tale of a "tin man". But surprisingly Brazilian director's Jose Padilha's (Elite Squad) take is arguably a vast improvement, displaying far more heart, brain and no little courage in revisiting and rebooting Robocop.

In place of Verhoeven's sadistic and subversive satire (complete with the Dutch director's trademark fake adverts and unisex locker rooms), we have a more sombre story that clearly has been made in the shadow of the Christopher Nolan Bat-trilogy and Rise of the Planet of the Apes, mixing taut plotting (despite being 20 minutes longer than the original) and a willingness to tackle some big current issues (euthanasia, drones).

A lengthy prologue in the form of a Fox News-esque TV show The Novak Element (hosted by Samuel L Jackson at his belligerent and wild-haired best) informs us that in the near future drone police forces are helping America to keep the peace offshore even though their own populace can't abide a robot pulling the trigger to enforce the law.

While the Dreyfus Act remains in place, US cops will continue to be human, something which frustrates robotics entrepreneur Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton).

"We need something to sway public opinion, a product they love, a figure they can get behind," he tells his Omni Corp executives.


Enter maverick detective Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman). After infiltrating a major drug organisation, he is horrified to find his partner critically injured.

However, just when he vows to hunt the perps down, a well-placed car bomb sees him suffering fourth-degree burns to 80 per cent of his body and his lower spine severed.

As Omni Corp explains to his wife, Clara (Abbie Cornish), his only hope of survival is via radical surgery that will leave him more man than machine, although at least she'll get her husband back - in some form.

Yes, while the criminal low-lifes are far more sketchy than in the original, there's far more emotional investment to be had in Joshua Zetumer's debut script which not only pumps up Mrs Murphy's character but also the body horror aspects, leading to some very Lovercraftian and Cronenberg-esque visuals. Those, of course, are light years ahead of the miniatures and Commodore Amiga-created special effects which were de rigueur in 1987, CGI seamlessly morphing Kinnaman into the ultimate "shell suit".

He makes for a solid enough lead even though he's clearly forced to play second fiddle to both his attire and a truly impressive support cast that also includes Gary Oldman (The Dark Knight trilogy), Jack Earle Haley (Watchmen), Jennifer Ehle (Contagion) and Jay Baruchel (How to Tame Your Dragon).

Of course, Robo-fans will argue that like the recent remake of Total Recall and the recent instalments of Die Hard, the fun and verve have been bypassed for a blander, more censor-friendly product.

Look closer here though (in particular at the news ticker on reports) and you'll still see some dark humour even Verhoeven himself would be proud of - "beer overtakes water",

"Mexican president opposes illegal Americans", "Greenpeace hacked by WikiLeaks" - as well as nods to the original's iconic theme tune and a couple of classic one-liners ("I'd buy that for a dollar").

What could have been another depressing assault on the childhood of those who grew up in the 1980s is instead potentially this decade's Minority Report, the sci-fi film that ends up being endlessly name-checked in future news articles.