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Review: Robocop (1987)

Robocop (1987)

Directed by: Paul Verhoeven

Premise: Set in a futuristic Detroit, a corporation has taken over city services including law enforcement. When a police officer (Peter Weller) is killed in the line of duty, his body is transformed into a cyborg but he is haunted by memories of his life and death.

What Works: The premise of the original Robocop sounds like the kind of silly action picture that would go straight to DVD. But just as Jaws is more than just a shark movie, Robocop is more than just a shoot-‘em-up adventure. Throughout his career, before and after Robocop, director Paul Verhoeven has made challenging films that defy genre conventions and have a subversive edge as seen in Total Recall, Black Book, and Elle. Verhoeven’s talents as a director were perfectly matched with the smart script by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner. The screenwriters created a story that had all the appeals of an action movie but also included great characters and interesting ideas. Robocop takes place in a futuristic city of Detroit that is plagued by violent crime while being overtaken by a ruthless corporation that primarily traffics in military hardware. The setting of Robocop literalizes the military industrial complex and the movie is extraordinarily prescient in the way it foresaw the privatization of public services and the militarization of city police departments. These ideas come together in the title character of Robocop. Police officer Alex Murphy, played by Peter Weller, is murdered by a local crime lord and the officer’s body is used as raw material for the corporation’s latest product. The intent of Robocop’s corporate masters is to stave off a police strike by intimidating the flesh and blood police officers with the threat of automation. But faint memories of the fallen officer’s life linger in Robocop’s brain and Murphy struggles to regain his identity. That’s another of the extraordinary things about Robocop; in the middle of this sci-fi action movie is an existential story about a man attempting to reclaim his identity after the combined forces of street violence and corporate indifference have taken it from him. That subplot gives Robocop a heart and soul that distinguishes it from so many other action movies. Robocop is full of great characters. Nancy Allen plays Murphy’s partner and she is tough but also a source of compassion as she empathizes with her robotic coworker. Kurtwood Smith plays crime lord Clarence Boddicker and Smith makes the character threatening but also enjoyably villainous. The rest of his crew are wacky and unusual characters who give the movie a lot of color. There’s also some great performances within the corporate world of Robocop. Dan O’Herlihy plays the CEO and O’Herlihy gets the humor of the movie. Miguel Ferrer and Felton Perry are low-level executives in charge of the Robocop project who run afoul of a senior executive played by Ronny Cox. Their characters are slimy in a way that is entertaining instead of off-putting and the office conflicts enhance the satirical aspect of the movie. This subplot also ties the corporate machinations into the criminal underground in a way that pulls the story together and makes the end of the movie very satisfying. While doing all of this interesting narrative and thematic work, Robocop also succeeds as an action picture. The chases and shootouts are fun and energetically directed and include a lot of unusual details. That’s especially true of the fight between Robocop and ED-209, a large bipedal robot that has much more character than the digital automatons of Michael Bay’s Transformers movies. Robocop was made during the science fiction boom of the 1980s and the film benefits from the creative practical effects of that time that keep the action grounded. But the action scenes play so well because they mean something more and that’s due to the film’s great story, engaging characters, and thoughtful themes.

What Doesn’t: There are two versions of Robocop: the R-rated theatrical cut and the unrated director’s cut. The differences between the two versions are slight but important. The unrated version includes extra gore that only adds about a minute to the film’s running time. This content does not advance the story or develop the characters but it does contribute to the tone. Robocop is shot through with a streak of black comedy; the gore is integral to that humor and it elevates the violence from horrific to absurd. That’s key to the movie and the elimination of it in the theatrical cut diminishes the film’s satirical impact. Robocop’s one major flaw as a science fiction picture is the way it is caught between its futuristic setting and the year of its production. Movies that are set in the future have to anticipate developments in style and technology. Robocop is very much a movie of 1987. The title character is made of advanced technology but the hairstyles, cultural references, and consumer products are unmistakably of the late 1980s. In some ways that works for the picture since it grounds the fantasy in something real but thirty years after its release aspects of Robocop look simultaneously futuristic and dated, although charmingly so.

DVD extras: The blu-ray edition includes the director’s cut version of Robocop as well as interviews, a documentary, featurettes, deleted scenes, a commentary track, trailers and TV spots.

Bottom Line: Robocop is a great film. It gives action aficionados everything they would want from a movie like this but it also has something more. Robocop is smart and subversive while being highly entertaining and it’s a great fusion of art and Hollywood spectacle.

Episode: #642 (April 8, 2017)