José Padilha Engineers a Surprisingly Competent Upgrade of 'RoboCop'

One of the interesting things about RoboCop is that he's always identified with the monstrous at least as much as the heroic. He's more Frankenstein's monster than Iron Man, more Venom than Spider-Man. Scientists bring RoboCop's Alex Murphy back from the dead and outfit him with a number of superhuman capabilities, but those upgrades come with more sinister caveats than anything in Tony Stark's closet.

Wow, there were a lot of comic-book references up there—sorry about that. It's appropriate, though, because Brazilian director José Padilha's new RoboCop remake has some of the pacing and exposition problems we've come to associate with origin stories. It is, however, a competent reboot with a surprisingly functional brain and a beating heart pumping oil or hydraulic fluid or whatever to its admittedly rather mechanical extremities. It's far less violent and satirical—and, okay, less fun—than Paul Verhoeven's 1987 original, but as off-season remakes go, it's far better than might have been expected.

Current events have been uncommonly helpful to Padilha's first Hollywood effort. RoboCop is still concerned with the fallout of a city's economic decline and the uncomfortable intertwining of commerce and government, but drone warfare and the rise of overtly partisan news networks have given Padilha and screenwriter Joshua Zetumer an even broader canvas.

Our guide through the world of RoboCop is Pat Novak (a hilariously over-the-top Samuel L. Jackson), a Bill O'Reilly surrogate who hosts a right-wing cable show called The Novak Element. Novak is a cheerleader for OmniCorp, a robotics manufacturer whose products are policing communities all over the world. For reasons that become clear during an early, Tehran-set action sequence, Americans are having none of it. There's even a federal law called the Dreyfus Act that makes the United States strictly off-limits for OmniCorp's mechanical peacekeepers.

Naturally, OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) makes breaking into the lucrative American market his company's number-one priority. To do so, he'll have to sway public opinion enough to get the Dreyfus Act repealed. Sellars enlists the morally conflicted Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) to somehow put a man inside one of his tricked-out war machines, and that's where RoboCop-apparent Alex Murphy (The Killing's Joel Kinnaman) comes in. Murphy is an incorruptible Detroit police detective who conveniently gets most of his flesh blasted off by a car bomb; with his not-quite-widow's consent, Murphy is soon rebuilt as the movie's titular badass.

From that point on, this version of RoboCop plays out like the aforementioned superhero origin story it really is. Alex must learn to control his new body and its ballistic bells and whistles in a series of fun training scenes highlighted by Jackie Earle Haley's performance as Mattox, an abrasive military tactician who doesn't want to mess up his robots with things like compassion and accountability. Eventually, Alex sets out to solve his own murder, which proves to be embarrassingly easy to figure out.

Partly in service of a box office-friendly PG-13 rating and partly because of Padilha's very different approach to the material, this RoboCop is, for better or worse, a much nicer affair than its predecessors. To be honest, I missed the sadistic heavies and their gruesome comeuppances, but it's interesting to see a more humanistic take on Verhoeven's relentlessly nihilistic and cynical original. Padilha is less concerned with the religious overtones of Alex's resurrection, but he spends much more time exploring the emotional ramifications of his transformation. Padilha dwells more on the tragedy of Alex's new life—his estrangement from his family takes a bigger toll, and the scene where we finally see what's left of his body is as sad as it is grotesque. Emotion is, in fact, a key plot element; we learn early in the film that emotion can cause Alex's cybernetic limbs and organs to malfunction, and the man-versus-machine conflict going on inside Alex, and its effect on his family, is given at least as much screen time as the loud, shooty RoboCop-versus-everybody showdowns that take place all over Detroit.

So it's gutsy, I think, that Padilha has authored a 21st-century RoboCop by playing up the "cop" and playing down the "robo." I wish he hadn't played it quite so safe—there are long stretches of the film that, while they're never boring, do feel a little flat and, yes, robotic—but this is a far more satisfying affair than we had any reason to expect.