For a remake of an '80s action movie about a robot with a human brain shooting up drug dealers, Robocop is surprisingly low-key at times. In fact, it's almost too restrained. Directed by José Padilha and set in a near-future United States, the film follows the travails of Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), a Detroit police officer so dreadfully injured by an explosion that he must be reborn with a mechanical body.
Once you get past trying to say the title Robocop with a straight face, there's actually a lot of potential here. What makes someone human? Memories and emotions, or flesh and blood? How much freedom must be sacrificed in the name of peace? Which is more corruptible, human beings or machines made by human beings? How trustworthy is something without free will? What is free will, anyway? All of these questions are glanced at in the film, but none are dealt with directly. It's hard to tell whether the movie is leaving the audience to form their own decisions, or whether its creators simply lacked the desire to explore the philosophical issues in any depth.
For those unconcerned with the peripheral treatment of ethical dilemmas, Robocop is comfortably paced and offers some respectable but unspectacular action sequences. Much of the original film's grim whimsey is absent, but some subtle humour is provided by Samuel Jackson as the highly opinionated TV personality Pat Novak. There are a few nice touches in the musical score, including an all-too-brief appearance of Basil Poledouris' theme for the 1987 film, and a caustically amusing use of "if I only had a heart" from The Wizard of Oz. The cast is uninspired but solid and would serve the film admirably if the leading man were only a bit more compelling.
Given that the dramatic core of the movie consists of a human mind trapped in a mechanical body, it would help tremendously if Alex Murphy actually had a distinctive human personality to contrast with the robot. Unfortunately, he's utterly bland and two-dimensional even before the metal limbs are attached and the corporate-sponsored doctor (played by Gary Oldman) starts messing with his emotional responses. There isn't a twitch or a quirk of speech to distinguish him from the hoard of other generic "decent guys" in movies. While the script and director must shoulder a large part of the blame, little good can be said of Kinnaman. His performance isn't wooden, exactly, but it lacks most of the little details that would have made Murphy a likeable and interesting character.
A flat hero might be more forgivable if Robocop were just another mindless action movie, but it's clearly trying to be a good deal more. A respectable amount of screen time is devoted to Murphy's family (played by Abbie Cornish and a pleasantly understated John Paul Ruttan) and to the people responsible for his transformation. The movie wants to have an emotional arc keeping pace with the flying bullets, but it doesn't quite manage. It seems that Padilha set himself the ambitious and admirable task of combining mechanized crime-busting action with a futuristic drama. The resulting hybrid is — like the title character — a bit of both worlds, but far from the best of either.