This 'Robocop' tackles 21st-century issues

Joel Kinnaman and Gary Oldman in "RoboCop," which muses on our automated world.
Joel Kinnaman and Gary Oldman in "RoboCop," which muses on our automated world. (KERRY HAYES)
Posted: February 12, 2014

In the year 2028, which is when the new RoboCop takes place, Detroit is bankruptcy-free, looking good. OmniCorp, a giant global concern that makes drones and military machines, has planted its sleek, skyscraping HQ in the heart of downtown. And while there is still plenty of crime, the city has top-flight detectives on the force to keep the bad guys at bay, like Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), who looks, and talks, like that Holder fellow from AMC's The Killing. (He is.)

But just like the first Murphy, the one played by Peter Weller in Paul Verhoeven's groundbreaking 1987 sci-fi hit, this one comes to a nasty end - a car bomb that leaves him burnt to a crisp, with a severed spine, and no hope, really, of living on.

Except that the CEO of OmniCorp - a cold and cultured fellow (he has a Francis Bacon triptych on his office wall) played with a cold, cultured smirk by Michael Keaton - has an idea.

"We're going to put a man inside a machine," says Raymond Sellars to his top scientist, Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman). And so the titular crime-fighting cyborg is reborn, and rebooted, to sell a wary American public on law enforcement automatons that will keep the streets safe, and keep police officers out of harm's way.

What's left of Murphy is fused with a billion-dollar humanoid chassis - his face, and one flesh-and-blood hand, encased in almost indestructible alloy, his actions controlled, and enhanced, by computers - but, in theory, his consciousness still his own.

Directed in gritty, jumpy, B-movie strokes by José Padilha ( Elite Squad), with Joshua Zetumer significantly working over the original's screenplay, RoboCop is a solid near-future action pic that poses moral questions about artificial intelligence and remote-control combat systems without getting too preachy or ponderous about it.

Where Verhoeven's RoboCop exploited audiences' anxieties about crime and urban decay, Padilha's version considers how the human psyche fits into an increasingly automated world, and how ethics and emotion figure in the new equation. Of course, it explores all this using fusillades of firepower, thumping robots, and cool CG effects.

Kinnaman brings a Frankenstein's-monster melancholy to his portrayal, while Abbie Cornish does her best to give the anguished-spouse role a bit of depth - she and her husband had a good marriage, and a son they loved, until everything went kaboom. Oldman is terrific as the not-quite-mad scientist all too willing to compromise his principles, while Jackie Earle Haley (as an OmniCorp henchman), The Wire's Michael K. Williams (as Murphy's detective partner), and Samuel L. Jackson (bookending the film as an ultra-conservative TV talk show host) add some actorly sturm und drang to all the slam and bang.


RoboCop *** (Out of four stars)

Directed by José Padilha. With Joel Kinnaman, Abbie Cornish, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, and Michael K. Williams. Distributed by Columbia Pictures.

Running time: 1 hour, 58 mins.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (violence, intense action, profanity, adult themes)

Playing at: area theaters




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