I wasn't feeling optimistic about the reboot of Paul Verhoeven's RoboCop, which is still brutally relevant 27 years on. Could anyone find a good reason to update this flick? And then this new RoboCop opens in "sunny Tehran," where "random patrols" by OmniCorp's mechanized warriors keep the peace as part of the U.S.'s "Operation Freedom Tehran," which makes the good people of the city feel safe and secure, we're told. Except we can see, during the chipper American news broadcast live from the scene, that the good people of Tehran feel nothing of the kind.
I'm still astonished at what happens next: A few of the good people of Tehran take action to demonstrate just how unhappy they are with giant scary heavily armed robots walking their streets. Stunned, I thought: Did this movie just make Iranian suicide bombers look sympathetic? Did somebody update RoboCop as a commentary on America's current drone warfare?
Except ... no. I now wonder whether there was any intent at satire or sympathy at all in that opening gambit. Maybe it was just a reason to get some way-cool ED-209s into the action. Because the story here is about how evil OmniCorp plans to circumvent a U.S. law against using robot law enforcement on U.S. soil by putting a man into one of their EM-208s.
But here's the other thing: OmniCorp may be evil, but it hardly feels satirical today. Drone warfare is happening. Privatizing a public service like the police in a major American city was scary speculation in 1987; today it's a done deal. The obnoxious right-wing TV host here (Samuel L. Jackson) is nothing more than Rush Limbaugh in a better suit.
Where is the black humor any decent reboot should have? Unless newbie screenwriter Joshua Zetumer and director José Padilha are trying to say that America is now truly beyond satire, I see no reason for this movie to exist.
Ah, but Padilha, who, in his native Brazil, made the pointless yet enthusiastically violent Elite Squad, doesn't seem to care about anything except frenetic action scenes. Some of it we see through RoboCop's heads-up visual display, so it's like watching a videogame. Hooray? After what's left of Detroit cop Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is shoved into the robot body by OmniCorp R&D scientist Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), one of the dumbest forced plot points I've ever seen is required to get the debate going about how much of a man OmniCorp wants in its new toy. This involves Norton and OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) yelling at each other for a while. Later, the frantic finale is driven by a piece of evidence that Murphy supposedly unearths about the crime that caused his injuries, but we're never told what that evidence is or why it leads him where it does.
One might, blissfully, be able to forget that this has any connection whatsoever to one of the greatest science fiction films ever made, until Zetumer tosses in snatches of dialogue from the original film. When Murphy says to a bad guy, "Dead or alive, you're coming with me," it has no significance like it did for the other Alex Murphy. All it makes us think, unfortunately, is, Oh, yeah, that other RoboCop movie is awesome.