Before watching the 2014 RoboCop, I had a hard time understanding the few positive reviews I found. Now that I've seen it, I have a much more difficult time understanding the outright dismissals. This isn't a great film. It doesn't have a clear point of view, yet seems to constantly strive for one. It frequently halts all forward momentum for painfully obvious and boring television segments starring a parody-level Samuel L. Jackson. A lot of the visual design is horrible (though it seems as if some of that could be intentional). It puts a great emphasis on its emotional story with little else to pick up the slack if that doesn't work for viewers.
But it's not an empty movie. I'm not willing to call it smart, but it definitely has ideas. Director Jose Padilha engages fully in the material and frequently comes up interesting and inventive ways to present what could easily have been boring, lifeless scenes. Some of these ideas work better than others, but I found the clear energy behind the film exciting. There's a real attempt to do something here.
We don't want a RoboCop remake, or remakes in general, because we fear a soulless repackaging of past glories into dumb branding or a checklist of story beats. From its opening moments it's clear RoboCop doesn't have this problem. Its primary success lay in its willingness to do its own thing. We don't need to see an imitation of Peter Weller's lumbering monster, and we thankfully don't get one. This RoboCop is all humanity and emotion, and the first - largely action-free - half of the film doesn't mind exploring how it would feel to go from strapping young man to mechanical monstrosity. Maybe you don't like a completely lucid, crying RoboCop, but you can't complain that it's not a different angle on the character.
When it does finally come to action, however, RoboCop mostly lacks the same level of care and detail that it brings to quieter scenes. It's mostly the same CG nonsense we've been stuck with for a while now. There is one exception though, a shootout between RoboCop and his killer, whose name I tellingly cannot remember. Both RoboCop and his enemies have night vision capabilities, but the room is actually pitch black, allowing Jose Padilha to play with lighting the fight merely from gunfire and RoboCop's visor. It's not super great but still indicates Padilha's effort to give us something more than the blandness that sadly defines many remakes.
A lot of people want to complain about the film's lack of real violence. I don't know if this comes from an impatience with PG-13 action films, which I can relate to, the fact that the original is notoriously violent, which I don't think should be a factor, or because people think the story calls for such bloodshed. All I can say is that the level of violence on display seems in keeping with the film's general style. RoboCop's not really much of an action film to begin with, and doesn't seem interested in making such hardcore points as the series is known for. Furthermore, Padilha doesn't set up an R-rated tone only to employ tons of awkward cutaways. It's a soft movie to its core. I never longed for anything more than I received.
The film largely finds its problems in the second half, but they belong to this film and have little to do with redoing the original RoboCop. We get a couple annoying callback lines, but those plagued Rise of the Planet of the Apes as well, and that's one of modern cinema's high water marks as far as remakes go. This doesn't have anything near the majesty or pathos of that film, by the way (though it briefly comes close when we get a shot of RoboCop's naked body). The main problem is focus and tone. RoboCop's journey through drone warfare concerns to media satire to family drama to personal revenge tale to David vs. Goliath battle against corporate villainy lacks pretty much all the grace and simplicity that made the original so great. Paul Verhoeven managed to make his RoboCop say several things simultaneously. This new only seems able to tackle one thing at a time.
It also focuses a lot more on RoboCop's family, a choice that supplies the film with its biggest opportunity to lose people. I was more interested in this than expected even though it revolves around a mostly hypothetical relationship as RoboCop and his wife spend pretty much the entire movie apart from each other. If you can't get into this, if the first half doesn't anchor you to Alex Murphy even on a small emotional level, I imagine the rest of the film will bore you immensely.
In all honesty, this isn't a movie I'm likely to ever watch again. It was a surprising experience but not one with elements exceptional enough to ever warrant a revisit. But I respect what Padilha wanted to do here, and how much of that he pulled off. After months of pointing my ill will at this film, I feel a need to at least admit that much. There are tons of movies put together without a care for actual quality. Regardless of how bad it looked going in, RoboCop is not one of them.