What's on TV? It's the current affairs show The Novak Element, hosted by journalist Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson), and the topic tonight is the use of robotic peacekeepers in the world's most troubled regions. Thanks to American technology, there are machines which can enter war zones and clean them up, setting them free from the tyranny of conflict and prevent any further acts of violence: Novak has a live interview with a reporter on the spot who is telling him of the benefits until suddenly a gang of suicide bombers attack, causing the item to be cut short. But this has only illustrated his point, which is why not introduce these robots onto the streets of the United States when they could reduce crime figures dramatically?
That longwinded introduction set the scene for a remake of one of the great science fiction movies, certainly of the eighties, which was Paul Verhoeven's unforgettable RoboCop. That had taken the sort of urban nightmare that Judge Dredd had stalked in the comics and offered it a slick gloss and extreme violence, along with a wicked sense of humour which flattered the audience into recognising the satirical intent: writer Ed Neumeier had described as "a fascist film for liberals", and that provocative stance was one which proved very difficult to recapture thanks to the savage intelligence operating throughout the film. This remake, nearly thirty years later, had plenty to live up to.
And it managed to fail to do so at almost every turn. Instead of the brutality we had all the impact of a fifties Western programmer, with people getting shot but no blood to be seen (unless you were looking very closely), and instead of the satire we had a soulful approach that tried to get to grips with the issues of artificial intelligence, and where man stopped then machine began. In effect, this meant a lot of tedious overanalysis of a concept that you would have thought bulletproof, scuppering any excitement, intellectual or visceral, with acres of navel gazing and talking out the social and political problems highlighted by the story. Fair enough, take your movie seriously, but don't weigh it down with concrete boots of philosophising when something more fleet of foot was needed.
Joel Kinnaman was the man stepping into the suit, now available in black or silver, who is nearly killed by a car bomb on his driveway by some shady coterie of gangsters and corrupt police which as a lawman he has been trying to take down. Seemingly hours of screen time later, he's finally on the streets of Detroit and making it safe to walk the streets at last, his Omnicorp owners having found the solution to the government's resistance to purely robotic cops as putting an actual living brain inside the contraption. Again, a needless overthink of the original, adding bits and pieces to a sleek premise until it's as lumbering and unfit for purpose as ED-209, and with poor Kinnaman not seeming much more of a personality whether he's an android or not, a poor substitute.
Director José Padilha was quoted off the record that making this was the worst experience of his life, with every item of creativity that could have made it stand out erased until this empty product remained. He had worth as a filmmaker in Brazil with his combination of action and thought, but here in his first Hollywood movie anything like that emerged as either a pale shadow or a weak parody. Speaking of which, there wasn't one decent laugh in the whole thing, unlike the source's go for broke black comedy, with Jackson the sole replacement for the spoofing take on modern media, and in spite of his obvious, forceful qualiities with material as unintentionally shallow as this he was never going to bring those to apply here. It was apparent this was a production designed to make money on an existing franchise with a few sops to stimulating debate it had little interest in, a few fish hooks for the desperately inquiring mind hoping for anything to latch on to. An overqualified cast floundered, the movie plodded and a sense of the studio having no idea what makes this tick dominated. Music by Pedro Bromfman.