LOS ANGELES — Early on a recent evening on the edge of Beverly Hills, Brazilian filmmaker Jose Padilha was breaking into song. Seated in the ballroom of a luxury hotel with Swedish actor Joel Kinnaman, the star of his new $120-million reboot of “RoboCop,” the director was feeling mirthful about the looming release of his first Hollywood production, which arrives in a hail of CG action and automatic weapons fire Wednesday.
Padilha made a name for himself with his 2002 documentary “Bus 174,” which chronicled a gruesome hijacking in Rio de Janeiro, and a pair of ultra-violent action movies — “Elite Squad,” about a Rio special-forces unit, won the Golden Bear award at the 2008 Berlin Film Festival; its sequel, “Elite Squad: The Enemy Within,” ranks as one of the highest-grossing Brazilian films in history.
“RoboCop,” a retelling of the 1987 sci-fi satire about a Detroit police officer who’s transformed into a sentient law enforcement machine, stands to introduce both Padilha and Kinnaman to millions more moviegoers. But the director, looking like an intellectual radical in an olive green skull cap and sneakers, acknowledged that his approach to the futuristic story might surprise some viewers. Padilha saw the film as an opportunity to make a thinking man’s action movie, a vehicle through which to comment on such hot-button political issues as the morality of drone warfare and American military incursions in the Middle East.
In the movie’s opening sequence, Samuel L. Jackson’s conservative TV commentator, Pat Novak, uses his broadcast to tout the repeal of a law designed to keep robot soldiers off American streets. To support his position, he shows a satellite feed from a newly secured Tehran where citizens must willingly submit to random retinal scans by OmniCorp’s armed and battle-ready ED-209 and EM-208 models. Noncompliance is grounds for execution.
“This movie is not the regular superhero Hollywood movie. It just ain’t,” said Padilha, 46. “I want to take the idea that I see being embodied in the original ‘RoboCop,’ that the automation of violence opens the door to fascism.”
So just how exactly did he manage to get that idea into a big-budget studio action movie?
“I fought the law, and the law won,” the Rio native sang. “In our case, the law lost.”
Often, the passing of time can burnish the reputation of science-fiction and horror films, but in the case of “RoboCop,” the original was hailed as groundbreaking upon its release. Directed by Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven from a script by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner, the picture starred Peter Weller as Alex Murphy, a cop slain by drug dealers who is reborn inside the suit of a cyborg in dystopian Detroit and quickly begins to rid the city’s streets of crime, inspiring dissension in the ranks of the police force.
Amid the instability, RoboCop starts to remember aspects of his life as Murphy and before long uncovers the sinister aims of Omni Consumer Products, the monolithic company that created him.
Pairing wild social satire and coal black humor with copious amounts of graphic violence and state-of-the-art stop motion special effects, “RoboCop” arrived near the end of the Reagan era as an audacious, R-rated indictment of corporate greed and corruption (Roger Ebert described it as a “thriller with a difference”). It was nominated for Academy Awards for its editing and sound, and it won a special achievement Oscar for its sound-effects editing.
“RoboCop’s” success sparked two less-well-received sequels from other directors (the last of which was released in 1993 and saw actor Robert Burke replace Weller), and the film launched Verhoeven down a path of crafting gleefully subversive sci-fi, movies such as “Total Recall” and “Starship Troopers,” though more recently he’s returned to making dramatic films in the Netherlands.
In the years since its release, Verhoeven’s “RoboCop” has grown in esteem. Criterion Collection issued its own edition of the movie, which is routinely cited as one of the best action films ever made. The idea of remaking it surfaced some years back; in 2008, Darren Aronofsky, worried about the stability of rights holder MGM, abandoned his attempt at a new “RoboCop” after penning a screenplay for the film.
Padilha first seriously pondered a “RoboCop” remake during a 2011 meeting with MGM executives about other projects the newly relaunched production entity had in the pipeline. The Brazilian had noticed a poster for Verhoeven’s original movie, and by the end of the session he’d pitched his concept for modernizing the story.
“I remember that every single film they presented to me, I instantly knew I didn’t want to make it,” Padilha said. “I’m listening, and I’m (thinking) ‘RoboCop,’ that’s what I’m going to do. I have an idea for that.’ So at the end of the meeting ... I pitched the idea. Two days later, I got a call from my agent, saying, ‘I don’t know what you did, but they want to do “RoboCop” with you.’ It was a good thing that it came into being this way instead of it being a studio already having an idea about what they want to make from the get-go. It was the filmmaker saying, ‘Let’s make this, and here’s my idea for it.’”
Impossibly lean, with a fondness for e-cigarettes, the 34-year-old Kinnaman said he was initially resistant to the idea of starring as Alex Murphy. As a fan of the original film, he expected a new version might not have the same teeth. But the actor, best known to American audiences as twitchy detective Stephen Holder in the TV crime drama “The Killing,” was swayed by what the ambitious Brazilian aimed to achieve.
“I’d seen his films, and they all had a very strong social and political point of view, and he had a visual style that was both gritty and poetic, and the acting was top notch,” Kinnaman said. “He told me the vision of this story that he wanted to tell using the concept of ‘RoboCop’ and why he felt that it was such a smart concept to bring in today. I was amazed by it. The only thing that was a little suspect about it, I was wondering, ‘How the hell was he going to get a studio to do this movie?’”
“There is a reason why you can pull that off with RoboCop and you cannot pull that off with other superheroes, there’s a specific reason that has to do with the hero himself,” Padilha responded. “The standard model for a superhero movie is you get a character that the audience wants to be like. Kids want to be Iron Man. Who doesn’t? He gets all the girls, he’s smart as hell, has fun and puts on this suit, and he kicks ass.
“Spider-Man jumps around, Batman has the Batmobile. He can be Batman and he can stop being Batman. And those screenplays — some are great, some are not — but they are all about creating iconic scenes and getting a very charismatic actor and getting kids to go with the character. No one wants to be RoboCop, not even Alex Murphy.”