It was punk rock to like RoboCop in the 80s. And I’m a thousand-ish years old, which means I was there. You knew back then, if your city was small enough (mine was Lubbock, Texas, so yeah), that the weird people could always be found in the same unlicensed spaces to see bands, the same record stores and at the same movies: Liquid Sky, Blue Velvet, Sid & Nancy, Repo Man, Brazil, Eraserhead at midnight screenings. You’d run into these folks over and over again. You’d make friends that way; and my punk rock friend Andee demanded we see RoboCop, announcing, “It’s from Paul Verhoeven. He made Spetters!”
“I haven’t seen Spetters,” I confessed.
“Oh god, you have to see Spetters! It’s harsh,” she told me, which was enough of a review to convince. Then we saw RoboCop. And she was right. It was about something, a not-so-stealth protest film, wrapped in extreme violence and brutal humor, all punk rock qualities. Verhoeven, working from a script by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner, rocket-launched movie violence against real-life violence and fake authoritarian stupidity against the birth of creeping, contemporary fascism. He’d seen World War II up close as a child in The Netherlands and those reverberations worked their way into this mainstream Hollywood action movie. 1987’s methodology may seem heavy-handed or dated as seen in the light of 2014, but we still didn’t need a remake.
So here’s the remake. And it’s not necessary. But it’s trying.
The story runs roughly along the same track. An uncorrupted cop (Joel Kinnaman) is destroyed by his job and rebuilt as a robot, becoming a perfect crime-stopper but losing his humanity in the process. He must assert his personhood and regain what soul remains in his new machine body while, at the same time, battling evil criminal and corporate forces against the backdrop of a hellish Detroit. Satirical humor takes a back seat, only rising to the surface thanks to Samuel L. Jackson’s wild-eyed portrayal of a take-no-prisoners, Extreme Patriotism TV pundit.
But early reports of a politics-free RoboReboot were wrong. Director Jose Padilha’s (Elite Squad) strength may be his muscular action sequences, but the Brazilian filmmaker is something more than a hack for hire. Embedded in this update from screenwriter Joshua Zetumer are nods to the insidious, soothing nature of corporate domination, the future-is-now nightmare of drones as street-level “peacekeepers,” and the ruined state of mass media. The beats are all there, and it moves toward an expected sequel-ready ending, but the rage has been burned down to a clean, crisp ash of passivity. We know the world’s been sold to the highest bidder and pervasive, paranoid fear keeps us from protesting too much, lest we lose our tiny ration of the pie or wind up the object of one of those drone strikes. RoboCop of Now reflects that and takes it all in stride. Which isn’t very punk rock at all. But punk’s been dead a long time now anyway.