February 12, 2014 at 1:00 am

Tom Long

Review: 'RoboCop' is frighteningly topical in a world of drones

Joel Kinnaman stars as a cop who becomes the man/machine RoboCop. (Kerry Hayes / Columbia Pictures)

When the original “RoboCop” came out in 1987, it seemed like a piece of far-fetched science fiction paranoia.

The “RoboCop” remake, which arrives in theaters today, looks more like next year’s newscast.

Director Jose Padilha and writer Joshua Zetumer let the reality of America’s current war-by-drones program loom over every decision and ethical argument here, and then they drive the point home with a Fox-News type TV host (Samuel L. Jackson) relentlessly advocating for the use of robotic police. It all looks eerily familiar.

The year is 2028 and a corporation called OmniCorp — based in Detroit, though the film was mostly shot in Toronto — and led by Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), is providing robotic law enforcement around the world that is objective, effective, emotionless and willing to blow up any enemy, be it a man with a gun or a small kid with a knife.

But the United States has not allowed robot police, the general fear being they have no moral ground or heart. Sellars figures out a way around this: Find a mangled human and have his chief scientist, Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), fix him up with all sorts of bionic weaponry.

They don’t have to wait long for a subject. Detroit cop Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman from TV’s “The Killing”) has been trying to take down a drug lord. When he opens his car door one night, a bomb goes off. He’s blinded, burned; he loses a limb, he probably won’t survive. So his wife Clara (Abbie Cornish) consents to having him transformed into RoboCop.

At first the human weapon — outfitted in sleek black this time around — that emerges has Murphy’s personality. But then it turns out his human impulses slow down his fighting instincts. So Norton, against his better judgment, tunes down those impulses in his brain. Soon enough, a cold and driven RoboCop is on the streets, arresting criminals in droves, and crime in Detroit drops 80 percent.

But when RoboCop starts investigating the bombing that crippled him, humanity begins to once again seep into his system. And his definition of bad guys starts to expand from street criminals to corrupt officials. And — this being both Detroit and corporate America — there are plenty of those to go around. Suddenly those who created the monster want it dead.

Obviously, special effects have come a long way since 1987 and this new version of RoboCop has all sorts of visuals going off in his head, while his process of getting suited up is strongly reminiscent of “Iron Man.” Padilha’s shaky camera approach to most action scenes is a bit overdone at times, but it also keeps things from feeling too, well, mechanical.

The talent level involved here is pretty high — toss in Jackie Earl Haley as a weapons guy and Jay Baruchel as a marketing manager — but most of the weight is on Kinnaman, who has little chance to show off his innate charm but shades up and down as the human-inhuman Murphy quite effectively. If there’s such a thing as wearing a metal suit well, he does it.

Obviously, “RoboCop” has a great deal to say about the interface between humanity and technology, and just as obviously, it’s not speaking in the most subtle of terms. Most people will go see this film for the extensive gun play and the body count, which of course make for swell entertainment. But you don’t have to pull back the curtain very far here to see the drone that will soon hover over your neighborhood.

'RoboCop'

GRADE: B

Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action, including frenetic gun violence throughout, brief strong language, sensuality and some drug material

Running time: 118 minutes

tlong@detroitnews.com
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