The original 1987 “RoboCop” from Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven was a crazy special effects-laden action film set in a dystopian future. Peter Weller played Detroit policeman Alex Murphy, who is nearly killed by drug dealers. With little more than brain function, he is turned into a cyborg to rid the city of bad guys.
As an 8-year-old when the original came out, “RoboCop” was right up Joel Kinnaman's alley.
“I watched it like a mad kid,” says the actor known for his role as the undercover cop Stephen Holder on “The Killing.” “My mom wanted to take me to a therapist because she couldn't get me to stop doing the robot walk.”
Now as the star of a new $120 million reboot of “RoboCop,” opening Wednesday, Kinnaman not only gets to do the walk, but he also wears a couple of cool new suits.
Despite his enthusiasm for the original movie, the actor wasn't interested at first in taking on the role in the new film until he heard about the involvement of Jose Padilha. The Brazilian filmmaker, 46, is mostly known for the disquieting 2002 documentary “Bus 174,” about a deadly hijacking in Rio de Janeiro, and two gritty action movies — “Elite Squad” and its sequel, “Elite Squad: The Enemy Within.”
“I knew Jose was one of the most interesting filmmakers in the world,” says Kinnaman. “He told me his whole vision of the story, and I thought it was brilliant. I thought it was one of those rare opportunities where you can do a big-scale action movie that's not only an exciting thriller, but also brings up some philosophical and political questions.”
Padilha says the first “RoboCop” already had a great theme in it, which is the connection between the automation of violence and fascism. For his first U.S. film, the director says he wanted to make the idea feel timely, pointing out that the use of drones has already become a hot-button issue around the world.
“A soldier or policeman may not do what the state asks of them if they think it's wrong,” he says. “But if you replace a policeman with the machine, a machine doesn't have a critical perspective.”
Unlike the original, which in 1987 felt like future fantasy, the technology and medical advances in the new “RoboCop” — set in 2028 — seem right around the corner. “If anything, maybe we set it too far in the future,” says Kinnaman. “Some of this could be reality in five to 10 years.”
(In fact, the cover story in February's National Geographic describes how scientists are beginning to develop mechanical exoskeletons that could one day be controlled by signals from the brain, allowing people with spinal cord injuries to walk.)
In the new film, the giant OmniCorp has managed to insert robotic soldiers into other countries as peacekeepers, but public opinion has made them illegal in the United States. Policing is done the old-fashioned way. Then, while investigating corrupt cops in Detroit, Murphy nearly dies in a car-bomb explosion.
Pushed by the giant corporation's chief executive, Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), scientist Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) is able to create a hybrid warrior after Murphy's wife, Clara (Abbie Cornish), desperately wanting to save her husband, gives her permission. Having a man inside the machine then allows the company to circumvent the law, although there is little more than a head and part of his torso left of what once was Alex Murphy.
“He has the memory of a man, and then he finds out he is a robot,” says Padilha. “Once you do that, you can start to talk about philosophical issues like what is it that defines you as a man? Is it your brain? Is it your body? Is it because your brain runs a certain software that makes you a man?”
Kinnaman says getting into the suit, a 1-hour, 45-minute process, helped him define his character. “Actually, the suit became one of the first seeds that led my imagination to the vulnerability that Alex Murphy felt after he became RoboCop,” says the Swedish-born actor. “It was an interesting contrast because he has this powerful body, but all of a sudden, he feels very uncomfortable.”
The moment when Dr. Norton shows Murphy what is really left of him is emotionally charged, but Kinnaman had to rely on using only his face to express feelings. The actor says working with someone the caliber of Oldman really helped him. “He would push me and said, ‘Let it be ugly.' ”
Keaton, who wore his own confining outfit in two “Batman” movies, says Kinnaman “probably won't get the credit for the degree of difficulty that was required” for the role. “I kept watching him in it, and it was really extraordinary what he did,” Keaton says.
The new “RoboCop” also places Murphy's wife and child more at the center of the story than the original. Cornish's Clara first has to make an agonizing decision about whether to keep her husband alive, and then increasingly questions OmniCorp about what it is doing to him, which is secretly lessening his human emotions to increase his robotic skills.
Cornish sees the situation as being an “incredibly existential question. It's a tricky topic, because there's a big divide between a person's mind, memories, consciousness and cognizant abilities being intact or not,” says the Australian actress. “I think it's a really hard place to take yourself to. It feels impossible to think about or even want to think about it, but I had to on set.”
Padilha's “RoboCop” still retains the satirical edge of the original. This time it's in the guise of a Fox News-like commentator named Pat Novak, played by Samuel L. Jackson (with yet another weird hairstyle). From a high-tech stage that parodies those of current cable news networks, he acts as a mouthpiece for OmniCorp, advocating the use of robot peacekeepers on U.S. streets even as the machines run amok overseas.
Kinnaman gives Padilha and Sony Pictures credit for making a $120 million action movie that tries to deal with big moral issues. “For a first-time director on U.S. soil, it was a gamble,” he says. “I know there was a lot of back-and-forth, but 95 percent of this movie is the director's cut. And even a Swedish independent movie is only 95 percent of the director's cut; so this is the film that we set out to make.”
Follow Rob Lowman on Twitter: @robloman1