Written by: Colin Smith
You know why I hated Ang Lee’s Hulk? Because he tried to explain the complexities of a character who is engulfed in uncontrollable rage and self-loathing by incorporating an unnecessarily large amount of backstory. Really? Hulk is an angry monster because he has daddy issues? I wanted to watch the Hulk smash shit, not a psych evaluation. I do give Lee credit for trying to give a seemingly one dimensional character more depth by delving into motives, but let’s be honest; when it comes to characters we know and love, we have preset expectations.
I can still remember watching the first RoboCop as a child. The brutality of the villains drove the film by allowing the audience to connect and support such a violent hero. Watching the four rogues taunt and torture Alex Murphy as he lay defenseless on the ground is cringe worthy. The shotgun-blast-to-the-hand scene alone scarred me for life. But after Murphy got his metallic makeover, revenge was on the menu and I was eager to indulge in the blood bath that was to come. By the time RoboCop invades the antagonists’ fortress, I found myself laughing as he mercilessly killed each one of them. Even when a member of the gang gets drenched in toxic waste and starts limping around looking like Sloth from the Goonies, I still sat grinning with delight. When I sat to watch my favorite cyborg patrol officer get his reboot on the big screen, it’s fair to say I had my set of expectations. Did it deliver? Much like Hulk, the writer chose to focus on backstory and humanity as opposed to the brutal gore and violence that made the original such a success. I’m all for character depth and complexity, so long as it’s incorporated to deliver the primary selling point of the protagonist. In this case, an honest cop gets murdered and seeks revenge after becoming a cyborg. Do we really need to make things more complicated than that? My response is no. However, that’s exactly what happened.
We find our new Alex Murphy, played well by Joel Kinnaman, with a little more swagger in his voice and a new sidekick in tow. The sidekick, Michael K. Williams, is a male version of Anne Lewis, now renamed Jack Lewis. This small, yet crucial part of the storyline really hurt… it hurt right in the childhood. I mean, honestly, who didn’t have a crush on Anne Lewis? But I digress. Our heroes are undercover and on the verge of uncovering an illegal weapons trade operation with known mob boss, Antione Vallon. Vallon gets tipped off by a few dirty cops in the department that Murphy and Lews are onto his scheme, which make things unravel quickly for both Murphy and Lewis. During a meeting with Vallon, Lewis gets seriously wounded, fueling Murphy’s resolve towards capturing and convicting Vallon. In the background, we have a socio-political theme being played out by way of newscasts featuring Samuel L. Jackson as a Bill O’Riley propagandist of sorts. OmniCorp is looking to bring the machines they’ve been using to keep the peace overseas to the home front, much to the chagrin of those who still find the appeal of having a human being with morality and values standing behind a gun. In an effort to gain a healthy medium between controllable-corporate-asset and public appeal, OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) shifts the initiative toward a half human, half machine concoction. And here is where my problem lies. Discontinue reading if you want to avoid spoilers.
Murphy is murdered by a car bomb. It’s at this moment that I begin to feel immediate disconnect. I feel as if the estimated $100,000,000 budget for the film was placed on the idea that a fancy new black suit and some enhanced CGI would ultimately be the selling point for this movie as opposed to good a story that would appeal to target demographic of viewers. Ones who grew up with RoboCop and immortalized the ruthless nature of a character who did not choose the violent path, but instead walked down it because he had to. Sure, there were more personal moments regarding Murphy’s wife and child, played exquisitely by Abbie Cornish and John Paul Ruttan respectively, but even that couldn’t salvage the lack of dramatism required in facilitating a connection with the audience. They tried to give RoboCop more emotion and humanistic qualities by tethering his disregard for authoritative programming to his dopamine levels, but still failed to give us a reason to connect. Why? We have several things coming into play. One being nostalgia. Hooray for whoever decided to come along and reinvent a well known and beloved character, but the least they could’ve done is provided a bottle of lube before raping one of my childhood heroes on screen. As I mentioned in the beginning of this, I feel that my connection to RoboCop started with Alex Murphy and his brutal death. It was the brutality and gruesome nature of his demise that made all of us, I’d like to think, root for the over the top directorial stylings of Paul Verhoeven. The 80’s were a time of excess and that was clearly displayed in the original RoboCop. Nowadays, rebooted films get over stylized and glossed with a contemporary vision that doesn’t come close to paying homage to the original. This film is just another victim of the aforementioned mentality.
Because the emphasis was placed on multiple sociopolitical issues amid several corrupt individuals, it gave little focus on who the actual villain really was. In the original, we knew who was to blame for Murphy’s death, Clarence J. Boddicker, AKA Kurtwood Smith, AKA Red from That 70’s Show. Antione Vallon would be a makeshift version of this, thought his demise is so lackadaisical thought you would barely notice. We also saw the jockeying for more lucrative positions within the OmniCorp industry and how those figures (Miguel Ferrer and Ronny Cox in the original) and their greed lead to a corrupt, corporately owned political infrastructure that had it’s sites set on a robotically run police state. The idea is there in the reboot, but not delivered as well. The climax in RoboCop ’14 was yawn-able at best. No massive shoot out, no intense battle, no toxic waste… Instead we get a make shift hostage situation that leads to a lack luster finale. Jackie Earl Haley would’ve been a formidable antagonist had they used him properly. The foreshadowing on his character, Rick Mattox, coupled with his overall demeanor in the film builds a hype that never pays off, which further fuels my angst for this film. Even the much loved ED-209 doesn’t make as big a splash as it should in this sea of disasters. Seeing RoboCop display some of his new, graphically enhanced plyometric skills was awesome, however having two ED-209’s taken down with relative ease, not so much.
In summary, I think that it’s the weaknesses in the hero that ultimately fuels his relatable nature to the audience, thus making a larger than life character more tangible. But much like Hulk, we don’t need our heroes explained away, but rather have their defining characteristics utilized effectively to feed the hungry eyes of those eager to witness the unsheathed glory of childhood mythological figures. Because, let’s be honest, a reboot that neglects to retain the important fundamentals of a character is like a pathetically dry handjob; it forces us to seek gratification from an effort that was half assed.