I’m going to ask an impossible favor of you, dear reader. Let’s imagine that this year’s remake of “RoboCop,” coupled with 2012’s take on “Total Recall,” exist unto themselves in something of a pop-culture vacuum, devoid of the considerable legacy of Paul Verhoeven’s bloody, brazen predecessors and yet still standing as recent examples of big-budget effects-driven sci-fi. As directed by Len Wiseman, the latter reveals itself to be an equally painless and brainless dose of forgettable flash, while José Padilha’s effort at least offers something resembling ideas of morality and mortality in the guise of a silly shoot-‘em-up, even if those ideas are eventually given short shrift.
It’s the year 2028, and OmniCorp CEO Ray Sellars (Michael Keaton) is trying to turn the public tide against legislation which forbids his company’s robotic forces from providing potentially lucrative security Stateside much as they have pacified citizens abroad. With the reluctant help of Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), Sellars’ solution is to put a man in the machine, and once a car bomb leaves severely scarred Detroit cop Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) in a coma, distraught wife Clara (Abbie Cornish, always crying) allows OmniCorp to resurrect Alex as a crime-fighting cyborg with a PR-friendly face and, ostensibly, the critical conscience that drones lack.
From that point on, Murphy is a one-man army against the scum of the streets whenever his lingering emotional trauma isn’t battling OmniCorp’s very deliberate programming protocols and deep-seated corruption from within his own ranks. However, just when the stakes should be escalating, the story downshifts from potentially ripe political satire — we’re shown segments from “The Novak Element,” a plainly biased news program hosted with suitably wide-eyed fervor by Samuel L. Jackson — to equally repetitive police procedural business and sentimental family reunion drama. Worse yet, the second hour’s promise of a little less conversation and a little more action is undone by the inevitable bloodlessness of PG-13 shootouts, whether they consist of frenetic simulations involving other robots, assaults by arms dealers rendered in almost complete darkness or rubbery feats of digitally rendered derring-do.
Regardless of sheer viscera, the action beats in director Padilha’s earlier “Elite Squad” films proved consistently exciting and well-orchestrated; here, leave it to an eerily clinical reveal of our hero’s remaining organs, stripped of their jet-black Batman-like trappings, to prove more stomach-churning than a single showdown against generally bland, easily tazed villains. Thankfully, the corporate ranks are a bit more colorful, with Keaton an endearingly slimy figurehead, Oldman his morally conflicted colleague and Jackie Earle Haley putting in a welcome effort as a puritanical OmniCorp technician opposed to the whole RoboCop gambit from the get-go. (Meanwhile, the reliably talented Jay Baruchel, Jennifer Ehle and Michael K. Williams all but watch the proceedings from the sidelines.)
That leaves Kinnaman, whose noble pursuit of justice by any means necessary often translates to a regrettable stoicism even before his emotions are chemically dialed down, and in turn, what should be a battle for the soul of a man, a city, and a nation falls by the wayside amid so many other agendas and in-jokes. It’s not hard to see the piecemeal soldier as the ideal metaphor for his own costly-yet-conflicted starring vehicle, questionably effective in its mission to entertain and often at tonal odds with itself. “RoboCop” has sound and fury to spare and even an inspired idea or two lurking beneath that polished exterior, but much like its upgraded namesake, this watchable mess ultimately lacks a prime directive to call its own.
SCORE: 6.6 / 10