19. RoboCop (1987)

Director: Paul Verhoeven

Starring: Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Daniel O’Herlihy, Ronny Cox, Kurtwood Smith, Miguel Ferrer, Robert DoQui, Ray Wise, Paul McCrane, Jesse Goins

When you’re watching one of Paul Verhoeven’s American films, you know you’re getting either a highly sexual film or an ultra-violent film. Sometimes both. “RoboCop” is one of the ultra-violent variety, yet the blood-soaked action is balanced out with a healthy dose of social satire. A great example of this is the board meeting near the film’s beginning. Omni Consumer Products Vice President Dick Jones (Ronny Cox) is presenting his plan for the future of Detroit law enforcement: the ED-209. The trouble is that ED-209 is defective. After giving a test subject a 15-second warning to drop his weapon (which the man does), the heavily armed machine repeats the warning, finishes the countdown, and riddles the man with bullets. One person hilariously screams for someone to call the paramedics. Meanwhile, the boss (Daniel O’Herlihy) is more concerned with the setbacks that Dick Jones’s “glitch” will cause the company than he is with the fact that one of his employees just joined the Choir Invisible.

Something I did not expect from “RoboCop” was the inserts of news reports and advertisements. One of the highlights is an artificial heart commercial. Also great are the two news readers who talk dispassionately about the accidental deaths of two former U.S. presidents, and their wishes for a fallen police officer’s speedy recovery seem rather forced and disingenuous. If done wrong, these moments could have played havoc with the film’s momentum. Instead, they serve as a thoughtful commentary on consumerism and the propaganda machine of the media. But, wait, there’s that word again: “machine.”

Of course, the greatest aspect of “RoboCop” is its cast of characters. There’s Alex Murphy (Peter Weller), the police officer who will become RoboCop, a good cop and a great family man. His son’s favorite TV cop show features a guy who twirls his gun every time he shoots the bad guy. Naturally, Murphy doesn’t want to let his son down and so he teaches himself how to do it. His partner, Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen), will later witness RoboCop using this same trick, and uncover the secret of his true identity. Lewis is RoboCop’s one remaining link to his humanity, and Nancy Allen doesn’t get enough credit for her work here. The criminals who kill Murphy (in one of the most brutal murder scenes I’ve ever seen put to film) are some of my favorite on-screen villains. You really want to see these men get what’s coming to them, and cheer loudly when it happens. Their leader is Clarence Boddicker, played by Kurtwood Smith of TV’s “That 70’s Show.” Clarence is such an evil bastard that he almost turns the movie’s main bad guy, Dick Jones, into an afterthought.

This movie had three main inspirations. One was the comic book character Judge Dredd. Like RoboCop, Dredd is an upholder of the law in a futuristic police state, using lethal force when necessary, and he wears a mask which covers everything but his mouth and jaw. Another was the Marvel Comics’ superhero Rom, a cyborg. But what first gave Verhoeven the idea for his movie was seeing the theatrical poster for “Blade Runner.” Instead of a cop hunting robots, he wanted to tell a story about a robot cop.

I’ve recently watched the trailer to the forthcoming remake of “RoboCop,” and it disgusted me. I realize it’s harsh to judge a movie before you’ve seen it. Most of my favorite movies have really lame trailers. I do believe it can’t possibly be any worse than the original’s two sequels. But if this three-minute ad is any indication, almost everything that makes Paul Verhoeven’s film a modern classic will be missing from the new version. It appears as though he’s just a man with robotic limbs. I also doubt that the satire is retained. If this is the case, the 2014 edition would then miss the point entirely. The 1987 version tells a tale of a man reclaiming his lost identity. Almost every character in the movie is a product of the system, but this cybernetic cop, the legal property of a corporation, is ironically more human than any of them.

  1. Sylvia Williams says:

    Just fantastic! I will have to see all of this movie now since I am no longer squeamish. I love several members of the cast anyway, and after your review, I’m ready to add it to my list! Well done, yet again!

  2. Glad to hear it. BTW, no less than five of the main cast members have turned up on one form of “Star Trek” or another.

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