When acclaimed Brazilian director Jose Padilha (Bus 174, Elite Squad) sat down with MGM executives to discuss his first English-language movie, a poster for the original RoboCop caught his attention. Indeed, he couldn't keep his mind on the task at hand.
"I remember that every single film they presented to me, I instantly knew I didn't want to make it," Padilha says.
"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'."
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," Padilha, 46, says.
"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. Today it is routinely cited as one of the best action movies ever made.
Padilha's RoboCop is set in the Detroit of 2028. Murphy is ferreting out dirty cops in his squad when he is nearly killed in a car bomb explosion. His wife, Clara (Abbie Cornish), gives OmniCorp permission to put what's left of Murphy's body into the RoboCop suit to save her husband's life. Conveniently for the company, the crusading hero arrives at the right time to help sway public opinion in favour of repealing the Dreyfuss Act, a law that prevents
OmniCorp from deploying robotic soldiers
to keep the peace in American cities.
With the assistance of Gary Oldman's scientist, Dr Norton, Murphy struggles to come to terms with the reality of his weaponised body, but as he's deployed to fight crime on the streets of Detroit, his humanity begins to override his programming, requiring OmniCorp and its chief executive, Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), to resort to increasingly extreme tactics to keep him under control.
"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 and he kicks ass," Padilha says.
"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."
MCT-LOS ANGELES TIMES