Man Inside the Machine
I'm not going to try and argue about whether or not we needed a RoboCop reboot. Every old property becomes new again and considering how long it had been since RoboCop 3 had come out (1993, marking a over 20 year gap between that sequel and the reboot), and argument could be made that we were due for another RoboCop. Just... couldn't they have delivered a better version than the one that we got.
Part of the issue with the RoboCop sequels -- RoboCop 2 and the aforementioned RoboCop 3 -- was that they lost sight of what made the original movie good. The character became a superhero, a kid-friendly confection that could be sold at toy stores, this despite the fact that the first movie is a hyper-violent, over the top action flick that only Paul Verhoeven could deliver. He left after the first film and the studio got their grubby little hands all over the sequel (and a cartoon at the same time) all in an attempt to milk as much money as they could for the cop that was also a robo.
RoboCop 2 at least maintained the violence even if it had a terrible story (and lacked the subversive edge of the original). The third film watered everything down further, muting the action down to a PG-13 rating so they could sell more toys (with toys prominently featuring in the movie, even). And then, twenty years later, studios MGM and Columbia came right back with another watered down, lackluster version of the story, suited to general audiences with a PG-13 rating and containing absolutely none of the bite of the original film.
Oh, the basic details parallel just enough that you can kind of trick yourself into believing your watching another RoboCop film. Detective as Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is chasing down a nasty crime boss, Antoine Vallon (Patrick Garrow), with the help of his partner, Jack Lewis (Michael K. Williams). Unfortunately, a pair of dirty cops within the Detroit P.D. tip off the gang boss, allowing him to escape capture. Then, the boss has Murphy killed, blown up in a car bomb right out front of his own home. However, there's hope for Murphy in the form of OCP.
Omnicorp, parent company of OCP, has been trying to get their robotic drones deployed on U.S. soil. Battle tested (such as they are) in Iran and other countries, the robots could be used as a crime fighting and peacekeeping force in the U.S. as well, but pesky laws about deployment prevent this from happening. With a man in the robotic suit, though, OCP could launch a test case to show just how effective their robotic warriors could be. This man, this RoboCop, would be the first in a long line of robotic enforcers, and with Murphy injured, they have just the test subject to use. But while Murphy is the man in the machine. OCP wants to make sure they control the machine as much as they can. He has to stay in line or they'll take him over entirely.
I don't think this film is entirely without merit. For starters, the RoboCop special effects are pretty decent. There's a little too much CGI involved, all things considered, especially for a reboot of a movie based on a film that was pretty famous for its practical effects (everyone remembers the classic ED-209), but things do look good. It's a slickly produced film with high graphic values on screen. It is, in short, very handsome.
It is, however, also very shallow. Part of why Murphy's death and rise again worked as well as it did is because it had the unflinching eye of Verhoeven behind the camera. Murphy's death in the original film is brutal, it makes you feel it, and because of that the audience is cast as voyeur to a brutal killing. The entire movie works this way, both as a over-the-top action film and a movie that judges you for buying in on all this action. Then it rips into consumer greed, corporate greed, and every other topic it could for the time period it was made in. It's a very dark and subversive film. RoboCop 2014 lacks any of that bite.
For starters, Murphy's death here happens in such a way that we never really see the true damage done to him. We can't, because that would be too graphic and this film was rated PG-13. There's an airy, empty quality to his near-death and then recovery, with the film skipping over a ton of stuff to get to the action. And then, for most of the film, we see Alex fight robots. Lots of robot. He barely battles an humans at all, and when he does it's done in such a way to obscure all the violence. It's an action film that's ashamed of its own action, putting its hand over your eyes like you're six years old and can't see the bloody bits.
It also lacks the stinging subtext the original film had. Yes, the bad guy is a corporate asshole ou9t for greed, but instead of letting us slowly discover that for ourselves, picking up on the careless and callous way the corporate officers treat RoboCop like a piece of tech they own, the film has them lecture us about what they want. They want more money, more power, more greed. The never let us forget what their real motivation is, and that completely undercuts any chance we have to maybe even think about the good they could be doing with RoboCop. The film doesn't let us get into their heads at all. They're empty characters talking about money. That's it.
I had better hopes for the film when it opens with a kind of Fox News parody, The Novak Element. This is a show (broadcast on a network that's never named) that acts as a corporate puppet for Omnicorp. Maybe the host, Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson), really believes the what he says, acting as a mouth piece for Omnicorp, or maybe he just likes the money. We never know. The film has him toe the line in such a way so as to not offend the conservatives, never really raising the role to high parody like is needed. And since he only ever appears on his show, and never out in the world for us to see him in any other context, we can never judge who he really is. A more biting version of the movie would treat him like a real character and we'd get some insight into his head space so we could understand his real role in talking up and helping to create the legend of RoboCop, but this film fails to do that.
As for RoboCop himself... eh, he's fine. Despite being the central character of the film, he's hardly a presence within his own movie. Partly that's because he's played by Joel Kinnaman, and generally bland actor who always seems lots in high-concept sci-fi fare (see also: Altered Carbon). But the real problem is that the film never lets him grow as a character. Once he becomes RoboCop his growth stops. Hell, for a good portion of the film the OCP bosses have all of RoboCop's emotions and shut off, leaving him as an empty husk. That's hardly a way to grow and make a character into a central vital force for the film. RoboCop is simply here while other people call the actual shots.
Look, there are any number of ways this film could have handled its subject matter to actually rise to the heights of the original film. More violence would have been good, because that's the RoboCop bread and butter. But, really, what we needed was more stinging bite from the film. A more developed Fox News parody, or more sinister villains, or a better and more interesting lead. Any of those things would have fixed some of the flaws of the film. All of them together could have made a worthy successor to the original.
Instead what we got was a bland, diluted bit of corporate emptiness. The only irony this film shows is the unintentional kind: like RoboCop himself in this movie, RoboCop has had all its soul and substance removed by its corporate overlords, leaving little behind by an hollow and empty husk. That's appropriate, in a way, but it hardly makes for a good film.