“Let’s go with black,” the slimeball OmniCorp CEO (Michael Keaton) tells an underling, commissioning a trendy darker color scheme for his crime-fighting creation. The man knows what’s fashionable in a superhero—and so, too, does the creative team behind this slick new RoboCop, whose greatest strength and most glaring weakness is that it’s not the old RoboCop. Just as its eponymous lawman loses some of himself in the mechanization process, José Padilha’s reboot sacrifices much of the personality—the savage humor, the irreverent carnage—of Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 original. But when it comes to unnecessary remakes, isn’t different better? Padilha, whose Elite Squad series did the cops-and-robbers genre right, has made his own movie—slightly squarer and less subversive than the other one, but also admirable in its refusal to simply replicate the circuitry of a blockbuster predecessor. The paintjob is where the alterations begin, not where they end.
While Verhoeven’s film took aim at the Reagan-era privatization of military might, the 2014 model applies that anxiety to an age of automated assassination. (Drone warfare is the new target, and unambiguously so.) The corporate bigwigs of this OmniCorp are much too PR-minded to allow one of their mechanical wonders to, say, gun down a yes-man during a board meeting. To put robotic peacekeepers on the streets of American cities, the company has to change the hearts and minds of the citizens, who are understandably apprehensive about a conscience-free droid having the power to decide who lives and who dies. What OmniCorp really needs is a man inside the machine.
Enter fallen police officer Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman, a suitably square-jawed replacement for Peter Weller), whose wife consents to letting the mad scientists resurrect her critically wounded husband as a metallic one-man SWAT team. For the full Nolan effect, he zips around dystopian Detroit on a sleek motorcycle; receiving more than just threat analysis through his computerized visor, the newly rechristened RoboCop also has an Iron Man-worthy database streaming into his brain. As for the whole humanity thing, that’s adjustable with the touch of a switch—though only to a point, as the geek squad discovers when their tin man begins to investigate his own murder.
In the satire department, RoboCop 2.0 is pointed but rarely funny: It leans heavily on Samuel L. Jackson, popping in to bloviate as a Fox News-style pundit. The digital mayhem, meanwhile, is capably staged, but lacks the visceral punch of the old Verhoeven ultraviolence. (Like Jay Baruchel’s nattering OmniCorp marketing wiz, the suits at Sony are after mass appeal; they’ve reprogrammed a gory genre classic into a PG-13 crowd-pleaser.) But this RoboCop earns its stripes, mostly for the seriousness with which it treats its Frankenstein story. Kinnaman, who’s afforded a wider range of feeling and more fluctuating inflection than Weller was, locates the tragedy of his character’s predicament. What he and Padilha understand is that RoboCop is both cool and—on a deeper, more philosophical level—pretty terrifying. The movie’s affecting highlight arrives early, when Murphy’s conflicted doctor (Gary Oldman, sterling as always) shows his lab experiment what he really looks like under all the moving parts. For a few minutes, the full horror of this refurbished premise is brought to the forefront. To paraphrase one of the original’s most famous lines—repurposed here, as a wink to the faithful—we’d buy more of that for a dollar.