Robocop (United States, 1987)

July 10, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Robocop Poster

Robocop was among the biggest surprises of 1987 - a sci-fi action film with a silly title that turned out to be a biting satire of big business practices. A tribute to the perspicacity and skill of director Paul Verhoeven, Robocop is capable of satisfying audiences with diverse agendas and preferences. For those interested in films with substance, issues pertaining to "techno-ethics" are addressed. For those seeking laughter, the story is laced with dark humor and parody. And for those looking for a bloody revenge thriller, it doesn't get gorier or more violent. Robocop is like a Michael Bay extravaganza with a brain to go along with the testosterone and adrenaline.

Robocop opens in Detroit of the near future, where crime isn't just rampant - it's a way of life. Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) is a new transfer to the police force, and he comes with the goal of ending lawlessness in Old Detroit the way Wyatt Earp tamed Tombstone. His partner, Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen), admires his gumption but is dubious about his potential for success. He hasn't been on the job long when he comes face-to-face with Detroit's most dangerous psychopath: Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith). After humiliating and torturing Murphy, Boddicker leaves him for dead - which is the state in which he would remain forever if his remains were not claimed by Omni Consumer Products (OCP), the company that has bought out the police department. They decide to use Murphy's organic remains for a pilot cyborg policeman program. Thus is born "Robocop" - half man, half machine - Dirty Harry with a bigger gun. Robocop is the brainchild of OCP executive Robert Morton (Miguel Ferrer) and his success angers his main in-house opponent, Dick Jones (Ronny Cox), who has his own rival program underway. Jones doesn't mind playing dirty and the success of Robocop forces his hand.

Privatizing the police force? Unthinkable? Perhaps 22 years ago, but not today. The privatization of numerous public and/or government agencies has brought about financial windfalls for cash-strapped municipalities and, while nothing as large at the Detroit P.D. has yet been sold to a for-profit business, one senses it could only be a matter of time. Verhoeven and screenwriters Edward Neumeier & Michael Miner gazed into their crystal balls and saw this. Beyond that, the movie satirizes the entire big business climate that existed during the Reagan era - a climate that has in many ways re-asserted itself during the low regulation threshold of the latter George W. Bush term. It should come as no surprise that there is a strong thread of social commentary running through Robocop; Verhoeven did something similar (arguably with even less subtlety) in Starship Troopers, another motion picture whose biting parody elements lifted it above the genre norm.

Verhoeven is known for his love of exploitation elements and, like Michael Bay, he is fond of on-screen mayhem. These elements are much in evidence during the course of Robocop. Arguably the most disturbing sequence is the one in which Murphy meets a painful end. Nearly as violent and bloody is the climactic struggle between Robocop and Boddicker. Both scenes were heavily trimmed for theatrical exhibition so the movie could receive an R rating from the MPAA. However, an uncut director's version is available on DVD, and it contains the film in its full gory glory. (Interestingly, Verhoeven's original conception of the final battle was even more grotesque than the one he filmed.) There's also a little gratuitous nudity thrown in for no particular reason except that Verhoeven likes showing breasts. (This occurs early in the film during a co-ed locker room scene.)

Verhoeven's career has followed an interesting trajectory. His career behind the camera began in the Netherlands, where he worked for about 20 years. His first international co-production, Flesh + Blood, attracted the attention of Hollywood producers, and Verhoeven was lured across the ocean. Robocop represented his first (and best) studio endeavor. After that, he became a major player in the American system, directing Total Recall, Basic Instinct, Showgirls, Starship Troopers, and Hollow Man. He then took a few years off before returning to Europe to make Black Book. Through his career, he has embraced extreme gore and violence while many other European directors have shied away from it.

One of the standout elements of Robocop is the despicability of the villains. These aren't mealy mouthed bad guys - they are vile, mustache-twirling cretins who deserve horrible, painful deaths. It takes a talented director to fashion characters that become targets of such extreme vitriol. This is what Verhoeven wants; the more deeply viewers hate the bad guys, the more they will be involved in the outcome. It's nice for an audience to like the hero, but more important that they loathe the villain. In Robocop, there's no shortage of detestable characters, but two stand out: the vicious, oily Dick Jones and the amoral, conscienceless Boddicker. It's almost impossible not to cheer when their well-earned comeuppances arrive.

The casting is atypical for this kind of motion picture, with many of the major actors playing against type. Peter Weller, known at the time as Buckaroo Banzai, was selected primarily because he was not a big man so the bulky costume would not appear awkward. At one point, Arnold Schwarzenegger was considered for the lead but the fear was that, while in Robocop's armor, he would resemble the Michelin Man. Schwarzenegger's ill-fated portrayal of Mr. Freeze a decade later proved this to be a well-founded concern. Weller's most effective scenes are those before he dons the costume; his personality gets lost when the armor is on. When he departed the franchise after the second film, the change in actors was not catastrophic. (Although the weak screenplays were.)

Nancy Allen, who replaced Stephanie Zimbalist at the last moment when she was called back to film additional episodes of Remington Steele (the same episodes that cost Pierce Brosnan his first chance at being James Bond), was required to cut her long, flowing locks and appear as asexual as possible. Ronny Cox, previously known primarily for playing nice, respectable men, is eerily good as the film's most malevolent character. After this, Cox's services would be in demand for villainous parts. Kurtwood Smith, a character actor, placed another memorable performance on his resume. Smith has been in so many things - both television and motion pictures - that it's impossible to associate his name with one portrayal. Finally, in an act of coincidence, two of Robocop's supporting players, Ray Wise and Miguel Ferrer, would be reunited three years later in Twin Peaks.

At the time of its release, Robocop was scoffed at, sight unseen, by critics who elected to evaluate the production based on its title and premise alone. However, those who watched the movie found it capable not only of generating the expected visceral reaction but of stimulating the mind as well. Robocop was a financial success for Orion Pictures, which subsequently made the unfortunate decision to move forward with a sequel. Verhoeven wisely did not return, instead turning his attention to work with Schwarzenegger in Total Recall. For those discovering this movie for the first time, it is best to ignore the disappointing, inferior sequels, since they accomplish little more than to tarnish the image of the original. Left to stand on it own, Robocop earns a place in the decade's elite group of action features.

Robocop (United States, 1987)

Run Time: 1:42
U.S. Release Date: 1987-07-17
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1