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Movie Review

‘Robocop’ remake doesn’t hold a candle to the original

With its acrid vision of Detroit in chaos, mindless infotainment on TV, and an all-powerful corporation outsourcing public services for profit, Paul Verhoeven’s “Robocop” was plenty ahead of its time in 1987. That the movie was rudely funny and brutally well-made was icing on a cybernetic cake.

The new remake is content to just be of its time. Set a few steps into tomorrow, it opens with a scene of US Army robo-warriors “pacifying” the people of Tehran and closes with a rousing, satiric pro-drone warfare speech, delivered by a strutting faux-Fox News demagogue played by Samuel L. Jackson in what looks like Al Sharpton’s hair.

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In between those pointed bookends, though, the new “Robocop” is rehashed business as usual: An acceptable, muscle-bound B-movie whose handful of fresh plot twists are drowned out by gunfire and dull action choreography. It has a great supporting cast, a flavorless lead actor, and some notions about free will that aren’t nearly as original or well-developed as screenwriter Joshua Zetumer thinks. But the film doesn’t embarrass itself or dishonor its predecessor.

The story departs from Verhoeven’s original — written by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner — with a confidence that comes close to being warranted. In this telling, the robot peacekeepers of Omnicorp are deployed in our overseas engagements, but the Dreyfuss Act, named for the grandstanding senator (Zach Grenier) who sponsored it, bars them from the American market. Omnicorp president Russell Sellars, a scheming entrepreneur played by Michael Keaton, decides the public needs a robot with a human face and puts his best scientist, Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), on the job.

They find their guinea pig in Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), a Detroit policeman who’s almost killed in a car explosion when he gets too close to bad guy Vallon (Patrick Garrow) and his corrupt cops. Alex — what’s left of him — is repurposed in black hydraulic gear and reintroduced to the public, but how much of him is programming and how much is human? And what will his wife (tearful Abbie Cornish) do when she gets her cyborg home? Will they make beautiful metal machine music together?

If only “Robocop” had the wit to go there. The film is directed by Jose Padilha, a Brazilian talent who made the grim, propulsive “Elite Squad” (2007) and its superior 2010 sequel and who tries to impress the Hollywood suits by painting himself into a PG-13 corner, albeit one with endless sprays of automatic weapons fire.Kinnaman, a Swede who has made his name in these parts on AMC’s “The Killing,” has the same laser stare as Peter Weller in the original but lacks the tragic vulnerability to make us pity this gleaming Frankenstein.

What’s really missing is the topical sting of the first film’s script and Verhoeven’s wickedly assured directing style. The new “Robocop” has its pleasures, among them the supporting performances by Keaton, Oldman, Jackson, Jennifer Ehle, Jackie Earl Haley, and Jay Baruchel, but every time the movie shifts into full-on action mode, it devolves into a videogame, and a boring one at that. If Padilha wants to make it in this country, he’ll have to override his own programming.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.
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