It’s hard to imagine About Last Night (1986) and RoboCop (1987) ever sharing a double bill, except maybe at a desperate drive-in during the waning days of the Reagan Administration. Now that they’re united, though, by having 2014 remakes opening within days of each other, the pairing makes a certain sense. Both were quintessential films of their time, yet both defied expectations and, in doing so, won quiet cult audiences that have persisted for the better part of three decades.
About Last Night starred two members of the Brat Pack—Demi Moore and Rob Lowe—as a couple of nice young adults who suffered from tragic commitment issues. It won raves from critics including Roger Ebert, who gave it a full four stars, but whatever must have seemed refreshing about the adaptation of David Mamet’s 1974 play Sexual Perversity in Chicago has gone as flat as a can of New Coke. Moore feels charming and genuine, but it’s not remotely believable that her smart, poised character would have stuck around with the peevish Lowe.
If About Last Night is a textbook example of the 80s rom-com, RoboCop manages to squeeze three of the decade’s most potent tropes into one tart package: it’s an 80s corporate movie, an 80s cop movie, and an 80s robot movie. Paul Weller played Alex Murphy, a cop who’s nearly killed in a drug bust before being reanimated as the flesh-and-blood core of a humanoid crime-fighting machine.
The two new remakes take their very different source material in very different directions, but both make clear their intentions to treat the originals as more than just free advertising. The two directors—Steve Pink tagging in for Ed Zwick on About Last Night and José Padilha taking over from Paul Verhoeven on RoboCop—clearly intended to pay homage to the originals while also improving them. I’m going to go ahead and say that Pink did better than Padilha in that respect, but that’s not because Padilha failed to read his copy of Remakes for Dummies.
The new RoboCop feels as precisely doctored as Alex Murphy’s devastated body; Padilha and screenwriter Joshua Zetumer have taken the basic premise of the original and introduced standard features such as a conventional romance, substantive themes, and character growth. Before you finish your Junior Mints, the new RoboCop has indicated that it plans to critique U.S. foreign policy, satirize America’s polarized media, and explore the philosophical concept of the soul. You can almost see Verhoeven putting his hand on Padilha’s shoulder and saying, “Excuse me, but are you aware that you’re making a movie called RoboCop?”
My friend Bob Algeo offered an incisive analysis of the original RoboCop‘s enduring appeal: under all that gritty dystopian dressing, it’s a poignantly inverted horror film. As in Frankenstein, its monster is also its antihero. It’s so gory that Verhoeven had to make last-minute cuts to receive an R rating—in the good old days when an NC-17 was still an X. The new RoboCop, on the other hand, is so tidy that it gets a PG-13 (there’s a lot of tasing).
Epitomizing the differences between Verhoeven’s film and Padilha’s is the manner in which the final death is dealt. Without giving away any details regarding who or why, I can say that the new film essentially breaks its own rules so that there can be a climactic moral crisis; in the original film, the climax involved what amounts to a corporate loophole. That sounds soulless, but because Verhoeven respected his material and stayed inside his crazy universe, we cared. In the new RoboCop, Zetumer follows the rules of conventional screenwriting and delivers a film that ultimately feels as bland and corporate as its villains.
About Last Night has also taken a trip to the script doctor (in this case, Leslye Headland), but in this case that’s largely a good thing. The lead couple’s wingpeople are actually given something to do (each other); and, critically, the Lowe character is allowed to be a man we might conceivably imagine a woman wanting to live with.
He’s also, incidentally, black (in the person of the soft-eyed Michael Ealy)—as are the film’s other three main characters. I’m not being either ironic or disingenuous when I use the term “incidentally”: placing their protagonists among a merrily diverse group of people who all live about $50,000 a year beyond their means, Pink and Headland determinedly dodge the opportunity to engage the question of if or how Mamet’s story might have played out differently in a different Chicago neighborhood. In fact, we’re even airlifted out of Chicago entirely, to a gleaming Los Angeles.
This new cast is so vastly more appealing than the original cast that it’s a balm. Frequent references to the first film are dropped, from mirrored dialogue to a sequence where the characters actually watch Lowe and Moore playing their counterparts on TV, and each time that happens, we’re left with a fresh feeling of gratitude that we’re not watching the original. As Ealy’s buddy, Kevin Hart would steal every scene he’s in if not for his infectious comic chemistry with Regina Hall. These characters are often very funny, and ultimately pretty lovable.
Though the new film is indeterminately more racially diverse than the original (I would say “infinitely,” but “indeterminately” is the more precise mathematical term for any real amount being divided by zero), it’s no more diverse in terms of sexual orientation. Homophobia was put in the game by the original film, which featured the line, “You are a schizophrenic, psychopathic, maladjusted social misfit who is clearly in the middle of a very deep homosexual panic.” In the new movie, that line is not only delivered verbatim, it’s driven home by an animated discussion of how the line’s target was forced to become gay by the hostile behavior of the woman in his life. Ick—and, yeah, there’s more like that.
Verhoeven’s RoboCop was a sharp, shameless shlockfest; Padilha’s RoboCop is an above-average example of its type, but trying to improve the original was like trying to improve blue cheese by making it less moldy. The original About Last Night is now mostly of historical interest, as a signpost on the road to our shacking-up society; the reboot floats freer of its context, but it’s more fun to watch.
In the 80s, who could have known that in the 2010s, these two iconic films would trade places, with the awesome robot cop becoming boring and the whiny singles becoming surprisingly charming? I don’t know, but now, if someone could just manage to get Kevin Hart to play RoboCop…yeah, I’d buy that for a dollar.