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ROBOCOP (1987)
The Criterion Collection Edition

"What are your prime directives?"
"Serve the public trust. Protect the innocent. Uphold the law."
"Murphy, I'm a mess!"
"They'll fix you. They fix everything."
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Reviewed by Jason MacIsaac of
Jabootu's Bad Movie Dimension


Director: Paul Verhoeven
Starring: Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Kurtwood Smith, Miguel Ferrer, Ronny Cox
Screenplay: Edward Neumeier, Michael Miner

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Synopsis: In a near future Detroit, crime is running rampant and the police force finds itself outworked and outgunned. Cops are constantly killed in the line of duty, as if the criminal world has declared outright war on law enforcement. Furthermore, a corporation called Omni Consumer Products (OCP) has entered into a contract with the city to run the police, leading to strange personnel shifts and disagreements with the police union. The frustrated union threatens to strike, even though a police strike would mean anarchy in Detroit.

Alex Murphy (Peter Weller), a recently transferred cop and his partner, Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen), respond to a robbery call. After a shoot-out and chase, Murphy and Lewis track the robbers to an abandoned steel mill. While trying to arrest one of the robbers, Murphy is ambushed by Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith), a sadistic crime boss and notorious cop killer. Boddicker and his gang torture and kill Murphy.

Murphy's body is then appropriated by OCP for a law enforcement project. His memory is wiped, his body is fitted with an armored robotic exoskeleton, and then he is deployed on the streets as RoboCop, the ultimate crime-fighting machine. With heavy-duty firepower and armor, and the single-mindedness of a computer program, RoboCop proves to be an effective weapon against crime.

Then, RoboCop begins experiencing flashbacks of his life and death as Alex Murphy. Shortly after that, he encounters one of the men who "killed" him, and starts to remember...

Comments: If Paul Verhoeven is lucky, he'll be remembered for his early films in Dutch or his sci-fi offerings like RoboCop. Unfortunately he has two very big, very notorious movies on his resume to live down--Basic Instinct, and Showgirls. Basic Instinct he can probably get away with, but not Showgirls. RoboCop was created in those happy days before Verhoeven began working with Joe Eszterhas. He'd go on to do Total Recall (a movie I personally thought was over-rated) and then get Sharon Stone to cross and uncross her legs in his next movie before hitting rock bottom with Elizabeth Berkley. Lately, he has shown signs of rehabilitation. His next movie is a sci-fi offering called The Hollow Men. Keep your fingers crossed.

RoboCop is much like a dark comic book or graphic novel brought to life with liberal use of arterial reds. You've probably heard that this movie is violent. Oh my yes. In fact, this cut featured on the DVD (and earlier, the laserdisc) is even more violent, extending the most gratuitous (and infamous) scenes that were cut after the MPAA threatened the movie with an X rating. Murphy's death, a protracted scene to begin with, has been restored to run longer. So has a scene where the prototype ED 209--a giant two-legged robot that was supposed to get RoboCop's job--guns down a young executive. In the original theatrical release, the shooting was over the top. The DVD cut is almost ludicrous, making another executive's order after the smoke clears even more darkly funny. Poor Mr. Kinney is riddled with bullets. And riddled. And riddled...

Though it is very much like a comic book, RoboCop is about a thousand times better than any comic book movie out there (and perhaps a millions time better than Captain America, also reviewed on this site). There are moments of depth and thoughtfulness amongst its superheroish approach and extreme violence. It's hard not to feel Murphy/RoboCop's rage when he searches his former home, now abandoned except for memories of his wife and son. It's also quite satiric at times, punctuated with joke commercials (my favorite pops in early: an advertisement for a heart clinic that sells artificial hearts made by companies like Yamaha). And, while Evil Corporation, Inc., wasn't exactly new when RoboCop was released, it still wasn't quite the incredible cliche then as it is today. In any event, OCP still has a lot more imagination than any Generic Evil Company you'll see in movies now. The executives are bent on success at almost any cost (the head of the company, having just watched ED 209 shred Kinney, is worried about "interest payments"!), but it is they who produce our hero. In fact the head of OCP, though hardly the most noble character, takes action that helps dispose of the movie's villain. Ironically though, OCP tramples over any semblance of ethics in order to produce what should be a force of justice (later they state that they're not interesting in making a hero. RoboCop is a "product.").

Finally, perhaps I'm being an English student here and am reading in too much, but I can't help but notice this interesting treatment of the violence, even beyond its excessiveness. Lots of people in the movie are subjected to large doses of violence. Initially, these scenes are horrific because they happen to people we see as innocent, or we're supposed to like. First there is Kinney's death, which though blackly comic, is still pretty unsettling. Then there is Murphy's horrific end, probably the most agonizing sequence in the movie.

Once Murphy has been changed into RoboCop though, there's an interesting switch. The violence is still horrific, but it mostly occurs to criminals and other scumbags we're rooting against. Probably the best example is when RoboCop delivers a gory but wholly appropriate comeuppance to a rapist. It's hard not take some satisfaction, and I'm sure many women wish this was standard treatment for sex offenders. Another such moment occurs when Boddicker's henchman Emil, no less sadistic than he, is literally reduced to a big smear on a windshield. Though it is gross, there's also the feeling that another piece of human trash got what he deserved.

What am I driving at here? The movie is demonstrating--not suggesting--that our attitude towards violence can shift rapidly when it serves an interest. "How horrible" can become "Nail the SOB!" in an instant by switching targets. Verohoven and scriptwriter Ed Neumeier would team up again for Starship Troopers, a movie structurally similar to RoboCop. Whereas RoboCop is filled with newscasts and satiric commercials, Starship Troopers was punctuated with propaganda-ish news broadcasts. In that movie, we see human armed forces go against legions of terrifying alien bugs. In this situation your natural inclination is to side with the humans, yet the movie makes it pretty obvious that they're a bunch of fascist bastards. It's even hinted that humans brought this on themselves by entering the bug's territory. Still, movies like Aliens have taught us what fun it is to take a machine gun, get all macho and to waste the alien scum, and at times that's why you might find yourself enjoying Troopers. The bugs are vicious, brutal and relentless, and there are instances when it's a great relief when they're killed. The message I get from this is that fascism can be wonderful--if you're fortunate enough to be on its side. If it doesn't happen to be on your side, well...

Okay, enough film school BS. The special effects aren't quite as impressive as they once were, the use of stop motion model ED 209s being a little too obvious (advanced version of techniques pioneered by Ray Harryhausen), though personally I find it kind of refreshing to look at after being saturated with CGI effects. Make-up however is still excellent, and well, somewhat disgusting at times.

The Criterion DVD edition of RoboCop has plenty of goodies for film freaks, making it well worth purchasing over other versions. Not only do you get the extended cut in widescreen, you get storyboards of unfilmed scenes, storyboard to final take comparisons, trailers, and you also get audio commentary by Verhoeven, Neumeier, and Executive Producer Jon Davison. There's also a multimedia presentation that discusses some of the filming techniques and how the shots were set up using storyboards, concept art, behind the scenes photography, and clips from the movie.

The film commentary is not bad, though sadly each person's contribution was recorded separately and too often they recall general incidents from the movie rather than comment on the action as it unfolds on screen. I personally prefer a group setting approach, with each commentator reacting to the other and giving their take on things as they see it. Still, it does the job. It also let you in on some interesting bits of trivia that film fans eat up. For example, Kurtwood Smith was given glasses to make him resemble Heinrich Himmler, and Neumeier dreamed up the shooting of Kinney sequence as a young executive sitting in on meetings at MCA/Universal, wishing that a robot would come in and just shoot everybody. It's no coincidence that the robot is named "ED."

PS: On a final note, this movie supports the sometimes offered theory that stars of Twin Peaks travel in pairs. We have Miguel Ferrer as Bob Morton (Albert in TP) and Dan O'Herlihy as The Old Man (Andrew Packard in TP's lamented second season).

PPS: On a really final note, you might like RoboCop enough to check out the two sequels. This would be a mistake. Trust me, and don't tarnish your memory of the original.