US | 1987 | Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Logline: In a crime-ridden and corrupt future Detroit, a mortally wounded cop is put back on the force as a powerful cyborg, but is haunted by memories of his past life.
Like an adult cartoon RoboCop blasts its way across the screen, taking out the trash, and restoring morale in what was once a city devastated by corruption. Only a stranger in a strange land could capture such a savagely sharp piece of satire. Dutchman Verhoeven on his first Hollywood movie, though not his first English-language outing, lights a blackly comic firecracker, and delivers one of the most memorable science fiction action flicks of the 80s.
Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner collaborated on a robot police flick with Reagenomics echoing loudly in their ears, whilst they chewed hungrily on the greed of yuppie consumerism. The result was a kind of hybrid Frankenstein meets story of Christ, perverted, mutated, rebuilt as one of those perfect tales of good vs evil in the contemporary world, or in this case, an urban dystopian future so palpable it leaves a metallic taste in the mouth.
Officer Murphy (Peter Weller) is keen to keep himself as a solid role model to his kid son. He practices twirling his police issue gun and holstering it, just like T.J. Lazer does in the television show his son watches. He’s been re-located to the Detroit South precinct, and teamed up with Officer Lewis (Nancy Allen). They bond quickly, but their first day on the job as a unit goes pear-shaped when, after tracking a bunch of gangsters to their industrial hideout, Lewis is viciously immobilised, and Murphy is brutally murdered.
Cue: Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer) at Security Concepts, part of Omni Consumer Products, who is very keen to showcase his prototype cyborg policeman, “RoboCop”. After OCP president Dick Jones (Ronny Cox)’s monstrous ED-209 suffers a “glitch”, the mayor (Daniel O’Herlihy), gives the green light to Morton’s project. The city’s crime situation is in dire need of fixing, so that the corporate cash-cow Delta City can go ahead. “Come quietly, or there’ll be trouble”.
Made only a couple of years before CGI began to replace some of the old school special effects in big budget productions, chiefly science fiction, RoboCop is, in many ways, a fascinating date stamp. It is both ahead of its time, but also curiously dated. From Rob Bottin’s brilliant RoboCop suit (a logistical nightmare to make and implement) and shocking gore effects, to traditional matte painting (Rocco Geoffrey’s OCP building is stunning), the production design and special effects are extraordinary. Even the use of the Ford Taurus as the standard police vehicle fits beautifully, as does keeping Peter Weller’s face under the RoboCop helmet, even though it seems superfluous.
The hideous SUX 6000 and rudimentary RoboCop tracking device aside, the most notable dated effect is the use of stop motion animation, but this also gives the movie a very distinct look and adds real weight to the whole movie feeling like an adult (as in ultraviolet and profane) comic strip or adaptation of a graphic novel. Phil Tippet’s work on the growling ED-209 is fantastic, as the fully-automated peace-keeping machine chews the scenery, “Put down your weapon, you have twenty seconds to comply.”
The prescience of RoboCop is slightly startling. Thirty years down the track and the military are using robots to complete many of the more dangerous tasks that in the past had been performed by soldiers risking their lives. Artificial Intelligence is being implemented in increasing fashion. Soon enough police will be using armed robots as sentinels in crime-ridden hotspots. RoboCop is, essentially, just around the corner. “The future has a silver lining.”
Verhoeven had never made such a movie, yet, after his initial reluctance to helm such trash - as the script seemed to him on surface level (in fact most executives turned the movie down simply based on its b-movie sounding title), he embraced the project and shoved it to the hilt, pushing the violence, greed, and corruption through the roof. In his mind RoboCop was like Satan killing Christ, a kind of fascism for liberals. “It's an old story, the fight for love and glory, huh, Bob? It helps if you think of it as a game, Bob. Every game has a winner and a loser … I’m cashing you out, Bob.”
Casting is spot-on, although it would’ve been great to see Stephanie Zimbalist, who was Verhoeven’s original choice as Lewis. Both Ferrer, and Kurtwood Smith as gangster head honcho Clarence Boddicker, are amongst the most wonderfully vile characters to grace/soil the screen in the past thirty years, and spot Ray Wise a few years before he became a very recognisable face as Leland Palmer in Twin Peaks.
Another notable element - which re-surfaces in another Verhoeven-directed, Neumeier-penned science fiction satire, Starship Troopers (1997) - is the use of television commercials intercut with the narrative. The stand-out is the ad for the hologram family war game “Nukem” from Butler Brothers (read: Parker Bros); “You crossed my line of death!”, “Pakistan is threatening my border!”, “That’s it buddy, no more military aid!” … Yup, RoboCop trumps all other movies attempting to predict where and how socio-politics will deteriorate.
Verhoeven had a lot of trouble with the MPAA, as they repeatedly slapped the movie with an X, after several submissions, finally getting an R. The Director’s Cut, the version to watch, would probably pass as a hard R these days.
The Future of Law Enforcement remains steadfast.