NEW YORK — One doesn't envy José Padilha the task of remaking “RoboCop,” the 1987 schlock-art sensation that introduced the Dutch director Paul Verhoeven to American audiences. For one thing, the basic premise — a Detroit cop is saved from the brink of death via reinvention as a cyborg, only to be programmed by the corporation that designed him as an indiscriminate killing machine — now feels as unradical to the average filmgoer as the latest episode of Fox's new cop-with-a-robot-partner procedural “Almost Human.” In the era of sophisticated digital prostheses and Google Glass, who among us isn't something of a cyborg?
But what really makes “RoboCop” a challenging remake is the original's peculiar tone, an incongruous blend of bone-crunching violence, waggish social satire and mournful Christian allegory. Verhoeven set his dystopian thriller in a recognizably Reagan-era landscape of urban chaos and Rust Belt decay, and even wove fake TV commercials in and out of the action plot for the apparent sole purpose of mocking American consumerism and political obliviousness. (Reportedly, Verhoeven inserted many of these ads after principal photography had ended, in hopes of jollying the ratings board out of saddling his gory film with an X rating. The ploy worked, and the R-rated RoboCop became one of the year's sleeper hits both at the box office and among critics.)
Padilha, a Brazilian director whose previous credits include the extraordinary true-crime documentary “Bus 174” and both installments of the well-regarded “Elite Squad” action franchise, was under no obligation to recreate Verhoeven's wackadoo recipe, nor would it have been wise to try. But to justify the existence of a remake at all, he and the film's screenwriter, Joshua Zetumer (adapting the original script by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner) needed to establish an authorial approach, and a fictional world, that were comparably specific and complex.
The term cyborg will apparently be completely out of circulation by 2028, when the new “RoboCop” is set. But there will still be drone warfare in the Middle East. The film opens on a TV news crew covering the latest from Tehran, where public order is maintained by robot drones who keep the citizenry in a state of permanent fear. Noting all this approvingly from stateside is right-wing news pundit Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson), who bemoans the fact that robot technology hasn't been used more to address domestic crimes. Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), the vaguely Steve Jobs-ian head of the not-at-all-menacing-sounding robotics company OmniCorp, dreams of making and marketing a man/machine supercop hybrid. But he and his team of soulless marketing strategists (including an icy-cool Jennifer Ehle and a broadly comic Jay Baruchel) haven't been able to find the right human subject for their dastardly experiment. That is, until — thanks to a hard-to-follow criminal revenge conspiracy — Detroit beat detective Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) shows up in the emergency room with two amputated limbs and severe burns over 80 percent of his body.
Murphy's doctor, Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), tells the injured man's wife (Abbie Cornish) that the patient's only shot at survival is to be recreated as a technologically augmented man-machine — a scientific development that the human race is apparently not planning on approaching in baby steps, since the sleek metal Frankenstein Dr. Norton eventually creates is a fully operational super crime-fighter right out of the gate. When Murphy first glimpses himself in the mirror in his new state, he's horrified — all the more so when, in the movie's most original and hauntingly icky image, his doctor forces him to confront all that remains of his organic body under the ambulatory metal “suit”: a head, a hand, a trachea and a pair of breathing lungs in a jar. This moment, which uses simple special effects to horrifying success, points in an interesting Cronenberg-like direction this “Robocop” might have taken — but unfortunately, the scene marks the last time we're asked to picture Alex as a fragile collection of free-floating organs. His human vulnerability soon becomes subsumed by the persona of the unstoppable crimebot his corporate masters are steadily turning him into, fine-tuning his brain chemistry and rewiring his circuits every time a twinge of conscience begins to emerge.
Neither Alex Murphy's internal moral conflict nor the larger, vaguely satiric portrait of a global culture dependent on high-tech law enforcement seem to be the main point of this “Robocop” remake, which raises the question of what is meant to be the point. Kinnaman — a lanky, quietly intense Swedish-American actor who was the only reason many of us kept watching AMC's ever-more-disappointing murder procedural “The Killing” — makes for a sympathetic hero, but like many of his fellow cast members — most notably Keaton as the entrepreneurial, Francis Bacon-collecting villain — Kinnaman often seems like a gifted performer chomping at the bit for something more interesting to do. Some of Samuel L. Jackson's direct-to-the-camera rants about the scourge of “robophobia” are funny, but they seem to take place only on the empty, echoing set of his cable-news show, which exists in no discernible cultural or political landscape: Who's watching the show? What's their reaction? Similarly, those opening scenes, with their allegorical handwringing about drone crowd control in Iran, evaporate like snowflakes in the heat of the eventual action plot. “I wouldn't buy that for a dollar!” sneers a military-weapons expert played (memorably if briefly) by Jackie Earle Haley, upon first encountering the flesh/metal hybrid he's been asked to train. It's a none-too-subtle rewrite of a much-quoted line from the original “RoboCop,” and also a sadly apt tagline for the new one.