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ROBOCOP is a laudable rethinking of the 1987 original. Told in broad thematic strokes, it still harbors in its soul a fine dialectic on identity, humanity, and even the reality (or lack thereof) of free will. Sure, it’s an action flick with shoot-em-up and blow-em-up sequences, but thanks to a grounding performance by Joel Kinnaman that remains believable human in any situation, and a supporting one from Gary Oldman that is a delightful romp around a virtual minefield of compromised ethics philosophical trade-offs, this comes darn close to a thinking person’s genre film that makes its point without positing that there are simple answers to life’s quandaries.
The basic plot is the same: good cop Alex Murphy (Kinnaman) is almost killed when his investigation into department corruption gets too close to the guilty parties. Maimed and barely alive, he is rebuilt by Omnicorp in what their marketing weasel (Jay Baruchel) sees as a golden opportunity. Omnicorp may have cornered the overseas market in robot peacekeepers, but at home, the American people have balked at having machines police them. Putting a man in a machine seems like a way around the law, and Omnicorp’s CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) wants the six billion in extra profits that would bring in domestically. The ethics of experimenting on a human being doesn’t enter into the machinations, not when it’s cloaked in the guise of restoring a good cop to his loving wife (Abbie Cornish) and son (John Paul Ruttan).
Naturally a gullible public is swayed by that, as well as by the charismatic outrage of a television host (Samuel L. Jackson), who wraps himself in the flag as he spouts a deftly worded form of Fascism, and by how efficiently Robocop, as Alex is dubbed, gets criminals off the streets.
The decision to make Alex an everyman instead of the usual Hollywood pretty boy was smart. Not that Kinnaman isn’t good looking, far from it, but his is the beauty of the real world. Also of the real world are Kinnaman’s choices when he is essentially reduced to an expressive face in suit of hi-tech armor. He never goes for melodrama, never overcompensates by overplaying an expression either of horror or tenderness, or anger. This is first and foremost a strong, relatable independent guy finding himself living a nightmare. The movie’s set piece, where Alex, and we, see for the first time exactly what is left of him in the organic sense is presented clinically, making the horror all the worse for what it reveals about the intersection between science and those ethics with which the medical genius of the piece (Oldman) conveniently shuffles aside in pursuit of finding out what exactly he can do with what’s left of Alex, and why he can’t get those pesky emotions Alex has to stop interfering with his masterpiece.
The corruption issue, government and corporate, gets shorter shrift, with a plot line that has nothing new to say, but says it with competence and a soupcon of intelligence. Keaton is superbly slimy, though, wiping any trace of a conscience from Sellars, as is Jackie Earle Hayley as a robot purist with what can be construed as having bigoted tendencies towards Alex’s new identity. The stock character of Murphy’s partner (Michael K. Williams) who is a magnet for bullets is barely sketched out, and the same can be said of Omnicorp’s legal whiz (Jennifer Ehle). On the other hand, the special effects are nicely restrained, offering us and Alex-eye view of his new world, and a nifty motorcycle on which he zips around Detroit.
ROBOCOP takes aim at globalization and the media while it’s cogitating on Alex’s in-between identity, and the medical advances making them possible that might be overtaking us sooner than we can process the pros and cons of them. To the question of when we stop being human and start being a machine, ROBOCOP takes a stand, but not a firm one, another smart move. It could move a little more quickly, and while the social commentary and speculation on life in the next decade or two where its set is thoughtful, it could also be more trenchantly integrated. Now that would be an explosive film on a whole lot more levels.