The existential battle that rages through “RoboCop,” a nicely cast, respectable remake of the wittily corrosive 1987 Paul Verhoeven film, is less the struggle between man and machine than between the original’s pop nihilism and the bottom-line commercialism driving this new vehicle. Once again, an ordinary man, a Detroit cop, Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), is transformed by corporate interests into a cyborg after being critically wounded in the line of duty. And, as before, the reanimated creature walks and talks like a latter-day Frankenstein’s monster, his recognizably human parts encased in an artificial carapace, although this version also mixes in tears with the bullets.
Every generation, apparently, gets the “RoboCop” it deserves, or perhaps desires. When the first one hit in the summer of 1987, Ronald Reagan was halfway through his second term as president and, as the movie’s socioeconomic pokes and Star Wars program parody suggested, ripe for the lampooning. Set in a crime-plagued Detroit, Mr. Verhoeven’s movie paints a vision of a failed American city scarred by derelict industrial zones and plagued by rampant crime, in which the only hope of salvation comes from privatization in the form of a corporation, OmniCorp. Helplessly overrun, the police are threatening to strike (evoking the air traffic controllers Reagan fired in 1981), when RoboCop (Peter Weller) clunks in, bombarding the town he also finally saves.
There’s more than a touch of Jesus to Mr. Verhoeven’s RoboCop, who rises again to redeem us, more or less. (One of Mr. Verhoeven’s recent projects is his book “Jesus of Nazareth,” which may become a movie.) This new version, directed by José Padilha, largely ditches the religious undertones and instead plays up its title character’s humanity. RoboCop still saves, but his wife, Clara (Abbie Cornish), plays a more central role than her 1987 counterpart did. Like her hubby, Clara sheds tears — this is one damp production — but, unlike similar shoot-’em-ups, this film puts more steel in her character, even if it starts rusting when attention shifts to the couple’s son, David (John Paul Ruttan), one of those wide-eyed stand-ins for the movie’s kiddie customers.
This is the first Hollywood movie from Mr. Padilha, a Brazilian filmmaker whose credits include the very fine documentary “Bus 174” and the very ugly exploitation flick “Elite Squad.” For the most part, he handles the smaller-scale action scenes in “RoboCop” competently, if unremarkably, and the closer he gets to the actors, the better.
The larger-scale scenes, with their churning violence and conspicuously computer-generated elements and camera movements, will have you reaching for your video game controller. The only notable feature of these bludgeoning, enervating segments, a syncopated blur of hammering gunfire and dropping bodies, is how thoroughly they undercut the story’s nominal — or maybe just cynical — insistence on valorizing the human factor.
Written by Joshua Zetumer (sharing credit with the original screenwriters, Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner), the movie has been pumped up, cautiously updated and cleaned up, with fewer expletives, if many more bullets. Among the other new attractions is a jingoistic television talk show host, Pat Novak, played by Samuel L. Jackson, who seems to have been tapped for duties so that he can deliver a bleeped Tarantino-esque obscenity. A corporate shill, Novak pops up every so often to provide intermittent commentary (and metacommentary), extolling red, white and blue militarism that’s as blunt as the action scenes. Mr. Jackson is a predictably crude, amusing instrument, even if his character’s ultra-conservative shtick is so familiar — Stephen Colbert mines much the same territory almost nightly — that the satire has no sting.
Updating “RoboCop” was always going to be tough, if for no other reason than the original’s irony, and its future-shock visions have become today’s reality, from the downfall of Detroit to the embrace of privatization, the use of high-tech artificial limbs and the triumph of propaganda over public discourse. Radically unsentimental, the first film had a gleeful apocalyptic quality that made it feel like a feature-length version of the end of “Dr. Strangelove,” in which Slim Pickens hoots his way to doomsday. The new “RoboCop” has a star in the making with Mr. Kinnaman, an intensely sympathetic actor best known for the AMC series “The Killing,” and it also features a handful of excellent side players, including Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton and Jennifer Ehle. All that’s really missing here is a point of view.
“RoboCop” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). The movie features gun violence.