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Columbia Pictures

Thick skin, soft heart

Profile image for By Boo Allen
By Boo Allen

‘Robo’ reboot finds the human within the bionic shell

When the original RoboCop hit theaters in 1987, it was a science-fiction fantasy, something too outrageous and too far in the future to contemplate. Now, that future is here in the form of drones, robots and wide-screen, ear-shattering Imax technology.

This latest RoboCop screenplay by Joshua Zetumer follows a similar path laid out by original screenwriters Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner. But director Jose Padilha dips into not only all the advances made in movie wizardry since then but also societal changes.

It may be giving too much credit to what is essentially a simple action-thriller movie — and a decently entertaining one at that — but Robocop also delves into the human makeup, extending the science-fiction examination of humankind first popularized by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

The main recipient of this scrutiny is Detroit detective Alex Murphy, played with fierce intensity by Joel Kinnaman. After a car bomb attack by the local bad guys, Murphy wakes to find himself encased in an ominous black suit of pliable armor. When removed, only parts of Murphy survive, a harrowing image only made possible by modern CGI skills.

But, echoing many of the technological advances made over the past two decades, Murphy’s brain can control this hard outer layer that then becomes RoboCop, the crime-fighting machine sent out into the streets.

Before this unveiling, director Padilha introduces requisite bad guy Raymond Sellars, the corporate head who stands to profit enormously from the success of RoboCop. Michael Keaton chews up the scenery playing Sellars, taking advantage of the fact that his co-star is restricted mostly to grunts, groans and a metal suit.

Padilha brings Murphy back to his human side, with the obvious pain suffered by his wife, Clara (Abbie Cornish), and young son contrasting with Murphy’s own angst. The scientist (Gary Oldman) who created RoboCop suffers his own moral crisis along with them.

But RoboCop dwells mainly, of course, on its loud, well-orchestrated confrontations, as RoboCop fights the advanced Transformer-type machines as well as Detroit’s surplus of street criminals. In this, Padilha excels in delivering what audiences will most likely expect. He also brings together an unexpectedly eclectic cast, from Swedish-American Kinnaman and Australian Cornish, to Brits Oldman, Jennifer Ehle and Marianne Jean-Baptiste.

Even these luminaries are outshined, however, when Samuel L. Jackson, wearing a flag lapel pin and a beaver-like hairpiece, appears intermittently as a Bill O’Reilly-like TV bloviator acting as Greek chorus, exhorting the American people to fight crime and accept the phenomenon known as RoboCop.

Opening-week box office grosses will tell if they do.



** 1/2

Rated PG-13, 118 minutes.

Now playing.