José Padilha: RoboCop Reboot, Brazil’s Broken Favelas and the Hispanic Armada

RoboCop 2014

When Paul Verhoeven (Total Recall, Starship Troopers) was handed the script to RoboCop (1987), like other Hollywood heavyweights, he initially cast it aside. The premise of the movie seemed ridiculous. When his wife rescued the pages, she continued to the end and convinced him to give it another chance, on the basis of a rich vein of allegories and metaphors running throughout.

Edward Neumeier’s story follows Alex J. Murphy, a newly-instated police officer in a dystopian Detroit, overrun with gang warfare and controlled by international conglomerate , OmniCorp (OCP). Breaking down society’s foundations and exposing an underbelly swollen with cultural hegemony, RoboCop sees its protagonist brought back from the dead as a crime-fighting cyborg unit – a crowning jewel in the mixed history of OCP. As the events unfold, what starts out as a mindless sci-fi/action film proves to be an unsettling satiric of our community’s decaying civility and the rise of corporate power.

The film was a hit, regaining its budget four times over, spawning two sequels and a short-lived television series. No spin-off could replicate the success of the original, with the cyborg short-circuiting in the early 2000s. The character of Murphy was sent to the scrapyard and hasn’t been seen since.

The Right Man for the Job

In 2005, Sony announced that a RoboCop reboot was on the cards. Disappointingly, fans of the series had to wait three years for something concrete to leak. Citing that the character needed to mature (like a fine wine… or cheese) a little longer, MGM revealed in 2008 that Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream) would helm the project. While this seemed an indication that RoboCop was ready for action, the synthetic humanoid was unable to claw its way out of development hell. Aronofsky found himself unable to commit, turning his attention to Black Swan and the upcoming, Noah.

Jose PadilhaIn March 2011, the studio confirmed José Padilha as director, a decision that may prove to be a masterstroke for the longevity and integrity of the RoboCop series.

A native of Rio de Janeiro, Padilha has oft been regarded as a documentarian of his homeland. His body of work boasts three critically acclaimed documentaries: Bus 174; Garapa; and Secrets of the Tribe, which premiered at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.

His transition into contemporary cinema is somewhat profound and particularly well-received; not only in Brazil, but globally. Elite Squad took home the coveted Golden Bear at the 2008 Berlin Film Festival, while the sequel was the Brazilian entry for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars. It is also the highest-grossing film in Brazilian box-office history, ousting Avatar for the top-spot.

A Modern-Day Dystopia


Having gained a reputable name for himself with Bus 174, Padilha teamed up with fellow screenwriter Bráulio Mantovani (City of God) a second time to adapt André Batista’s novel, Elite de Tropa (Elite Squad). The film is centered around the Special Police Operation Battalion (BOPE), an infiltration unit specifically trained for urban warfare in Brazil’s crime-ridden slums – the favelas. The sequel, Elite Squad: The Enemy Within, tackles many of the same issues raised in the first, as well as the state of the Brazilian prison system and political leaders.

It is here that you can begin to feel optimistic for his interpretation of RoboCop.

Much like City of God, Elite Squad situates itself squarely in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. An overwhelming drug problem is rife in the slums and corrupt police officials turn the blind eye for a favorable cash sum. The Enemy Within expands further and examines how the problem twists through the police network and further afield.

Drawing on a knowledge of politics from his studies in Brazil, Padilha’s work is insightful and well-informed. His writing exposes the country’s leaders as very human individuals, with very human desires. His experiences with the hungry and poverty-stricken are conveyed unerringly, with large portions of the film feeling like a documentary rather than fiction. By experiencing his film, you are (in turn) experiencing a living hell; a society so far removed from democracy it feels like a modern-day dystopia.

This ultra-realistic approach to film-making may have been the reason he was given his latest assignment, with the Dark Knight trilogy and Dredd signifying Hollywood’s current love affair with grit and realism.

It is strange that the favelas of today draw comparisons to Neumeier’s world of tomorrow, but juxtaposing Elite Squad with RoboCop builds a bridge that would be better served torn to the ground.

In the slums, drug-dealers lead the community through manipulation and fear. This is only of secondary concern compared to police brutality and corruption. One scene in Elite Squad places a newly-recruited policeman in a sociology lecture. His classmates engage in a heated discussion on oppression from the local law enforcement, while he argues that the media and government are the leading cause for this depiction. A prime example of a Marxist cultural hegemony.

On various occasions, the police officer’s romantic interest refers to drug-dealers as ‘socially aware’. Whilst being violent, the common people look to them for help; they see them as more suited leaders than their dysfunctional government. When criminals are seen as the leading figures in society, can democracy prevail? Or does this confirm that Rio de Janeiro is the modern-day equivalent to Verhoeven’s Detroit?


These notions are duly present in RoboCop. The organization, OmniCorp, represents a modern-day government. Dick Jones (Ronny Cox) resorts to murder, intimidation and deceit to influence the ruling company, while his rival (responsible for Murphy’s reincarnation) seeks only fame and wealth. Similarly to Rio’s higher-ranking officials in Elite Squad: The Enemy Within, the company appears to act in society’s best interest, but its employees are guided by only personal gain and the lure of success.

Kurtwood Smith’s character, Boddicker, represents the broken society at ground-level. Like the Brazilian drug lords, his actions are despicable and coarse. Though, even as a notorious ‘cop-killer’, he manages to maintain a loyal following. The police, uncorrupted, are still failing to protect the civilians they serve, and rely on the radical introduction of RoboCop to turn the tide in the war against chaos and disorder; much like Captain Nascimento and the BOPE of Elite Squad. Both hero’s are unshakeable in their approach to law enforcement, but inspiration from Nascimento’s rigid values, tenacity and imperfections could see Padilha’s Murphy grounded with a much more humanistic style than the original.

Style and Substance


To RoboCop (2014), Padilha brings with him director of photography, Lula Carvalho. Boasting a CV that includes City of God and Elite Squad 1 and 2, it is easy to get an idea of how the reboot will look and feel.

Carvalho’s cinematography has often been described as ‘music-video’ like, utilizing quick cuts, close-ups and a saturated color palette. Reds and oranges pop out of the screen to make blood-splatter (something Padilha does not shy away from) a grotesque joy to behold. His camerawork is inventive and unique; a handheld approach gives his art the feel of a documentary, albeit swinging from artistic to distracting in some cases. With these two pairing up for RoboCop, audiences can rest assured. No matter the outcome, the film will at least look fantastic.

A False Start

Jose Padilha

However, it seems pre-production proved to be something of a stumbling block. Confiding in fellow director and friend, Fernando Meirelles (City of God), Padilha confirmed that the process was an unmitigated struggle. One can see why. With Elite Squad, he was working with his own creation; his own script and ideas. RoboCop has seen a screenplay thrust into his hands by three separate screenwriters and constant meddling from the studio. The Brazilian has said that “for every ten ideas he has, nine are cut.”

This is not uncommon with a big-budget blockbuster, particularly when a relatively raw talent heads proceedings.

Yet Padilha is still confident of a successful outcome for the project. “The film will be good,” he told Meirelles, “but I do not want to do this again.”

Though the accuracy of these quotes is questionable, when he was quizzed on the matter he simply said, “we deal with those difficulties with coolness and familiarity.” Trouble was definitely brewing behind closed doors.

Most recently, in an interview with VH1, RoboCop star Abbie Cornish had nothing but praise for the filmmaker. She mentioned that Padilha not only thought the film would kick ass – but would be also go down as a classic. His confidence has certainly risen since the boardroom mishaps of pre-production.

The Hispanic Invasion

three-amigosPadilha follows in a long line of Spanish-speaking directors crossing the border into Hollywood. The most notable to do so are Mexican filmmakers; Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro González Iñárritu. Like Padilha, these three heavyweights nurtured and perfected their talents in their native country. Del Toro found success with Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone, before bursting into the American film industry with Blade 2 and Hellboy.

Similarly, Cuarón made Love in the Time of Hysteria and Y Tu Mamá También, before taking on the third Harry Potter film and the apocalyptic thriller, Children of Men.

Alejandro González Iñárritu broke onto our screens with the controversial Babel in 2006, but had already achieved success in his home country with Amores Perros. His 2010 picture, Biutiful, made waves at the Oscars, earning a nomination for lead actor (and previous winner), Javier Bardem.

The film business in Latin America has spiked. Audiences viewing local releases around the region have risen drastically, meaning locally-produced work is reaching wider viewers and competing in the market against its northern competitors. Its recognition at the most prestigious film festival is almost certainly a result of such a boom. The 2012 Cannes Film Festival featured a strong influx of Latin American flair. Argentina, in particular, was well-represented. Films like Pablo Trapero’s Elefante Blanco, Alejandro Fadel’s Los Salvajes and Gonzalo Tobal’s Villegas went down well with their respective crowd, avoiding the onslaught of boos Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives received.

Joining Padilha in spearheading the next generation of young Hispanic talent to grace American soil, are rookie horror directors Fede Alvarez (Evil Dead) and Andrés Muschietti (Mama), though neither found success in their native land. This places him as the clear front-runner to take the baton from the previous generation.

Padilha’s intellectual insight into political workings will no doubt ground the dystopian action flick with well-informed realism. His action sequences have been unflinching and raw in previous endeavors, something many hope will spill into his remake. It proved advantageous for the crowd-pleasing Dredd reboot; a film that will inevitably draw comparisons with RoboCop upon release.

An exploration of his earlier work will give audiences a taste of what is to come. A futuristic hell with as much style and sizzle as his nation’s football (soccer) team, RoboCop could very well defy critics and pessimists and confirm Padilha’s place as the pinnacle of Latin American imports into the American film industry.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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A self-proclaimed 'cinephile' who spends too much time obsessing over an out-of-control film collection, I am a lover of all things imaginative.

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  1. I loves Padilha’s Bus 174, I think that film was much better thn his Elite Squad series. he has a knack for revealing humanity behind those we may dismiss entirely as simply bad people, rather then focusing on the crime he looks at why a person is driven to such an action. In some ways I think he will be perfect for the film, not only will he remain true to the spirit of the original but he will expand on the ideas of what it means to be human, and the impact of the environment in forming one’s character.

    If it had been anyone else directing, I don’t think I’d be as interested in the remake, but this has potential.

    • Dale Barham

      I too enjoyed Bus 174, any Brazilian cinema really, that’s why I’m so excited that Padilha is being given the chance to prove himself.

      I just worry that studio interference could hamper the final product.

  2. Sian Adele

    Really enjoyed Elite Squad so hoping for more great things from him! Fab article again!

    • Dale Barham

      Thank you, Siany 😀 he’s an awesome director, Elite Squad 2 was even better than the first, I’d say it was just as good as City of God as well.

  3. dominic

    Elite Squad 2 is one of my favorite intelligent action dramas. Have you ever thought how The Wire would be if it was made into a film? Well, there you have it.

    • And the first Elite Squad is like The Shield!

      • Dale Barham

        I have yet to see The Shield, would you recommend it? I really enjoyed Elite Squad so I will give the first few episodes a go if they’re along the same lines.

        Thanks for reading!

    • Dale Barham

      I rate the Wire higher than any other show and indeed saw similar points in the film. I enjoyed the direction it took away from the BOPE and into political corruption particularly. Thank you for reading

  4. Alexander Aloi

    This is a very detailed history. I was a bit skeptical about remaking RoboCop since its something of an “eighties” icon. I was worried that we’d just end up with more eighties nostalgia, which we are up to our freaking necks in right now. But now I’m hyped! I can’t wait to see how Padilha handles Robocop! Thanks for a good read.

    • Dale Barham

      Thank you for your reply!
      I’m still a little cautious about the studio input, but they seemed to have some ambition hiring Padilha in the first place. They must have seen something they liked in his Elite Squad films, so I’m hazarding a guess that the political aspects of a dystopia will be handled maturely.

      I think that he’ll shine through and make RoboCop his own.

  5. Taylor Ramsey

    I am scared of this film. I want it to be good, but we have all been burned before.
    Strong article, well thought out and presented, thanks.

    • Dale Barham

      Thanks for your kind words, you’ve supported all my articles so far and I’m grateful for that.

      I’m cautious about this film and I won’t allow myself to hype it up because it’s Padilha. However I’m hoping that this will be like a smarter version of the recent Dredd.

  6. I'm no one

    Wondering if the chose the black suit because of the Batman box office success… Think about it. The “look” of matte black was so accepted and successful in portraying Batman, they might have gone that route, instead of the original Stainless Steel finish.

    You have to admit that the look for the new Robocop is NOT inspired on the original Robocop design. Only the visor has somewhat of a resemblance to the original design. Everything else looks GENERIC and in honesty, looks cheap and not well thought of. The original design was something NO ONE has seen before, still to this day, you can look at pictures of Robocop and can really see a design of a machine instead of a guy in a suit. It was amazing to say the least.

    This new design looks like they might’ve had in mind a sort of SWAT matte finish, which makes sense in having a dark, black suit to absorb light and reflections (although he still has shiny, reflective surfaces which makes the design, including that BIG SHINY DOME, kinda paradoxical in itself), but I really doubt they did not mentioned Batman at some point during or after the design was complete.

    • Dale Barham

      I think it’d be silly to argue that it wasn’t inspired by Batman to some degree and it definitely doesn’t resemble Weller’s RoboCop at all. It looks like the thinking behind it is speed, to make RoboCop streamlined.

      I think it was inevitable though that he looks different, the 80s RoboCop was somewhat impractical, he wasn’t the fastest by any means. I think that this film will see the character forged on practicality, he’ll be more lightweight and able to move around freely.

      You have to remember as well that RoboCop is a prototype, his design is allowed to look a little unfinished.

      Thank you for your reply and thanks for reading!

  7. Ana Souza

    I’m a huge fan of Padilha as well but I’m still skeptical about this venturing of his into Hollywood…I think it all comes down to the degree of studio control as you mentioned, which will define the final outcome. I’m just worried it will be a bit like Jeunet’s foray to Hollywood for Alien 4 which didn’t end so well and illustrated precisely how Hollywood can squash the creative talents of even the most daring filmmakers, especially within science fiction. I guess we will see what happens and keep our fingers crossed!

    • Totally! He doesn’t have the same freedom like what he had with his Elite Squad movies.

      Another thing out of concern is how he is a documentary filmer, making him even more relying on his own decisions and direction. Wishfully, the studios will not kill this talent.

      • Dale Barham

        As I said to Ana, I think Padilha struck a healthy middle-ground on which to operate with the studio. He seems happy with the result so far. Let us hope its at least an entertaining action piece, the release date is a little worrying – unless Sony are being optimistic and throwing it in the mix for Oscars haha.

        Thanks for reading Lyons!

    • Dale Barham

      I feel that Padilha has managed to get his own way in the end if I’m being honest. He moved on from the issue with the studio rather quickly and his message to Cornish is promising to say the least – although this could be a marketing ploy.

      It won’t be as bad a Jeunet’s Alien and I’m praying that it’ll be a step up from Total Recall (2012), another Verhoeven remake.

      Thank you for reading and commenting Ana!

  8. “Padilha follows in a long line of Spanish-speaking directors crossing the border into Hollywood. ”

    Padilha is Brazilian- he speaks Portuguese, dipshit.

    • Dale Barham

      Haha honest mistake man, no need to get offensive.

      • No man, that’s not an “honest mistake”. It’s just ignorant. There are few things that offend more a Brazilian (I know, I’m Brazilian) than to be called “hispanic”.

        The title of your article is already offensive (the Hispanic Armada).

        WE ARE NOT HISPANIC. If you wanna a similar term for us, we are lusitanic or lusophones.

        How can you research so much about Padilha and not bother to fucking Google about Brazil and discover we DO NOT SPEAK SPANISH AND WE ARE NOT FUCKING HISPANICS?

        This is like writing about a Japanese director and assume that he speaks chinese and put “the chinese invasion”in the title.

        Please correct the article – things like this is what creates the stereotype of “dumb gringo” around the world.

  9. In hindsight, RoboCop seemed to have a prescience.

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