Paul Verhoeven brings us the Future of Law Enforcement in this satirical sci-fi masterpiece.
Who made it?: Paul Verhoeven (Director), Edward Neumeier (Co-Writer/Co-Producer), Michael Miner (Co-Writer), Arne Schmidt (Co-Producer), Orion Pictures.
Who’s in it?: Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Dan O’Herlihy, Ronny Cox, Kurtwood Smith, Miguel Ferrer.
Tagline: “Part man. Part machine. All cop. The future of law enforcement.”
IMDb rating: 7.5/10.
RoboCop is very much an outsider’s view of America. If anyone other than Dutch maverick Paul Verhoeven had made it, there’s little chance that its sharply satirical streak would have survived. The targets in this genre mishmash are as far-reaching as commercialism and gentrification, providing a deeply exaggerated view of corporate greed that grows more prescient with each passing year. And despite all of these sub-textural nuances that enrich the final product, RoboCop functions as a hypnotically over-the-top science fiction/action film. A cybernetic cop mowing down crooks is merely the window dressing. What could’ve been insufferably cheesy became something much more mythic and, dare I say it, relevant. Amidst the spent shell-casings and gallons of blood, it’s also one of the best Christ allegories ever made.
In a crime-ridden Detroit of the near future, police officer Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) is gunned-down by a criminal gang led by the bespectacled psychopath Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith). Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer), working for the sinister Omni Consumer Products, resurrects Murphy as a near-indestructible cyborg christened RoboCop. But there’s a ghost in the machine; Murphy’s latent memories slowly bubble to the surface, posing the question: Is it the man that makes the cop, or the pneumatic parts buzzing away beneath?
Though inconceivable now, Verhoeven might never have made the film at all. His reaction to the script’s title page mirrored that of Hollywood’s elite, who had all promptly passed on the project. If it wasn’t for his wife’s prodding, Verhoeven would never have recognised the hidden intricacies in the screenplay by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner. Everything from Frankenstein to The Terminator is referenced in the film’s pulp plot, but what really invests us is this near-dystopian society. When I think of RoboCop, I think of the hilariously forced optimism of news show Media Break, or the commercials for items you pray never exist in the real world (my favourite being the “family-friendly” boardgame, Nuke ‘Em). The reality here is not so far from our own in 2016 – unemployment is rife, mega corporations own everything, and the little guy’s interests are secondary. Because Verhoeven and his screenwriters ground this comic book reality in a recognisable tomorrow, we invest in everything that happens. Verisimilitude with a concept as silly as this was key.
And yet, RoboCop is never dour. Though its comedy is pitch black, it is often uproariously funny, even when the splatter kicks-in. Verhoeven’s previous Dutch films had indulged in graphic violence, pushing it so far that it become a punchline. His American debut only solidified that passion for screen blood-letting, summed up best in the infamous reveal of ED-209; a sequence which originally earned the film an X-rating. OCP’s first stab at an artificial lawman malfunctions and blasts a poor yuppie’s insides all over the boardroom (despite the amount of ammunition pumped into the unlucky Kenny, someone still suggests they call a paramedic). The slimy Dick Jones (Ronny Cox) calls the affair a “glitch,” which doesn’t sit well with the Old Man (Dan O’Herlihy), who is more concerned with profit loss than Kenny’s bullet-ridden corpse. As comedy, RoboCop is skirting the edge of poor taste frequently, but Verhoeven chose the right tone for a film about a robotic Judge Dredd.
If there’s one scene where the violence is meant to disturb, it is naturally Murphy’s death. We don’t get to spend too much time with this virtuous crime-fighter before he is reborn, but Neumeier and Miner give us enough details to pity him. Murphy is a family man with a wife and son trying to get by in a world that doesn’t deserve his efforts. It’s also not hard to sympathise with a man blown apart by multiple shotgun blasts (seriously, this guy takes an unbelievable beating). The sequence left a lasting impression on me as a child, and Murphy’s demise is still a gut-punch all this time later. It’s also rather brilliant that he meets his maker in an old, run-down steel mill; a symbol of industry that later brings him back.
But there’s more to Verhoeven’s bag of tricks than excessive force. Consider the scene immediately following Murphy’s death. The screen cuts to black for what feels like thirty seconds, before it suddenly splutters to life again; Murphy’s consciousness living on in the digital realm. It’s an inspired crossover into the film’s sci-fi elements, and still the director holds off on revealing RoboCop until he absolutely has to. By the time we get to a resurrected Murphy commandeering a patrol car to the sound of Basil Poledouris’ triumphant score, we don’t care that he is just an actor in a suit. We’re completely on his side.
Speaking of the costume, designer Rob Bottin deserves a lot of respect for creating something that has stood the test of time. RoboCop’s chrome armour could have come off the Detroit production line, whilst still taking inspiration from a hundred cyborg films before it. Thanks to Jost Vacano’s sterling cinematography, the effective lighting only works to enhance the suit’s metallic quality (although, HD has made some of the close-ups look a little rubbery). To this day, the film’s titular star never inspires sniggering unless the script actually calls for it.
The film’s all-important action sequences are also smartly handled, never existing just for the sake of pyrotechnics. They also possess an old school charm. In an era before rampant computer-generated trickery, some of the effects shots are showing their vintage, but Phil Tippett’s amazing stop-motion animation deserves a shout-out. Robo’s encounter with ED-209 is still a highlight, belying the picture’s tight $13 million budget. Verhoeven incorporates all of the shooting, explosions and bloodshed the genre demands without drowning out the picture’s themes.
As good as this film’s aesthetics are, it ultimately works due to the cast. They say a film is only as good as its villain and RoboCop has one of the best in 80s cinema. Smith is simply phenomenal as the sadistic Boddicker. Some will remember him best as the well-meaning dad on That 70’s Show, but he’ll always be the deplorable Clarence to me. Intelligent, well-spoken nutters are always the best, and Smith delights in every vicious detail. He is assisted ably by the equally cast-against-type Cox as Jones, who is so effective as the corporate slimeball that Verhoeven cast him as an antagonist again in Total Recall (1990). But not everyone at OCP is duplicitous. Ferrer, as RoboCop’s creator Morton, gives the character a fascinating complexity. He wants the best for his city and means no-one harm, but the most important thing in his life is his career. This is a trait the sequels lacked, painting the corporation as wholly evil when a little grey area would have made more sense.
On the other end of the spectrum, Nancy Allen drops her trademark locks as the desexualised Ann Lewis, Murphy’s former partner and the key to bringing his human side to the surface. Whilst you could argue that she doesn’t fully live up to the image of a strong, self-sufficient heroine, Lewis is paramount to making the film’s emotional core work. It’s a shame that her part was decreased in the resulting follow-ups. But if anyone deserves our respect in this cast, it’s Weller. Filming RoboCop was notoriously difficult for the actor due to the confines of the costume, but he absolutely delivers on the robotic aspect of the character. His mannerisms and vocal work completely sell the role, taking him from a mortal man to a metal behemoth to a fallibly human machine with a great deal of believability. Weller even latches onto the script’s biblical allusions, raising his arms in a Christ-like pose during the character’s murder, as well as giving a booming, god-like authority to his lines as a death-defying product. There’s something conceptually satisfying about a resurrected man getting revenge on the men who killed him at the site of his death. It even leads to a fist-raising moment in the conclusion when Murphy literally walks on water. It’s just one of the many layers that make this character more than the sum of his parts.
I’ve seen RoboCop more times than I care to admit over the years, and it remains a perfectly executed B-movie. It exists in the realm of Accidental Masterpieces, where a cheesy script was transformed into something culturally relevant by a director working at the top of his game. Enjoy it for the themes of identity, commercialism and what it means to be human, but enjoy it especially as a film where a man gets shot in the testicles, and another doused in toxic waste. Verhoeven had every base covered here.
The remake didn’t have a prayer.
Murphy’s last stand is still the film’s most bravura sequence of exaggerated cruelty. Cheers for the nightmares, Paul.
- The film spawned two theatrical sequels, RoboCop 2 (1990) and RoboCop 3 (1993), numerous videogames (including RoboCop Vs. The Terminator), a live-action TV series, two cartoons, and a variety of comic books.
- For the theatrical trailer, Orion used the music from The Terminator. Arnold Schwarzenegger was briefly considered for the role of RoboCop, but those involved with the film were concerned he would be too bulky in the suit and end up looking like the Michelin Man.
- Realizing that the film was running behind schedule and over budget, Paul Verhoeven and producer Jon Davison purposely didn’t film one crucial scene: Officer Murphy’s death. When production wrapped, they went back to Los Angeles and “grimly” informed the execs that Murphy’s death hadn’t been filmed. So the execs gave them more money and they filmed the scene in a warehouse in Los Angeles.
- The repeated line “I’d buy that for a dollar!” comes from Cyril M. Kornbluth’s short story The Marching Morons, which presents a similarly cynical view of an over-commercialised future that’s desensitised to violence and war. A radio game show in that short story uses the line “I’d buy that for a quarter” as its signature phrase.
- The RoboCop suit was so hot and heavy that Peter Weller was losing 3 lbs a day from water loss. Eventually, an air conditioner was installed in the suit. The production team wasn’t satisfied with the initial design, and kept changing it and putting additions to it for months. Ultimately, nothing seemed to work and they went back to what was pretty much Rob Bottin’s original design. This caused considerable delays, and by the time the suit was completed, it was three weeks late and arrived at the studio on the day that the first RoboCop scene was scheduled to be shot. It took 11 hours for Bottin’s people to fit Weller into the suit, and when it was done Weller found that all his mime exercises were now useless because he needed time to get used to the suit and to perform as a robot in it. Production was halted so that Weller and his mime coach, Moni Yakim, could learn how to move in the suit.