ROBOCOP 1 - REVIEW
By: Mike Sutton
Paul Verhoeven’s early films are so deliciously amoral and playful that it was something of a surprise to see him helming an American SF blockbuster. But the film that resulted is something of a triumph for individual vision over the pressures of special effects technology. Robocop is funny, politically on-the-ball, exciting, violent and often surprisingly touching. It combines state of the art effects work with Verhoeven’s black sense of humour in a way which he later refined in Total Recall and, at its most extreme, Starship Troopers. Personally, I still think it’s his best movie.
The place is Detroit, the time is the near future. A huge corporation, Omni Consumer Products, has taken over the police force and is forcing major cut backs on the increasingly harassed officers. Faced with a potentially disastrous strike and ever-rising crime, OCP develop ED-209, a huge policing robot that proves lethally unreliable. Amidst the chaos which develops after ED-209’s demonstration, an ambitious young executive reveals his own plan for the future of law enforcement – Robocop. A mix of man and machine, Robocop has titanium armour, unlimited firepower and is conditioned to fulfil three primary directives – uphold the law, serve the public trust and protect the innocent - and a mysterious fourth, known only to the highest levels of OCP. When Murphy (Weller), a brave young cop, is critically wounded in the line of duty by a career criminal named Clarence Boddiker (Smith), his body is chosen to be the organic basis of Robocop. Initially, the project works perfectly but gradually, the human core inside the machine begins to question his existence and experience flashbacks to his own murder. Soon, Robocop is seeking revenge, a quest which will prove to have unsuspected links to the top brass of OCP.
The plot has links to classic horror stories such as “Frankenstein” and the stuff about prime directives comes straight from Isaac Asimov. But what gives it a kick is the socio-political satire which keeps bubbling up and subverts the relatively familiar storyline. OCP are the type of company that thrived in Reagan’s America – unethical, ruthlessly capitalist, endemically corrupt - with the slight concession that they’re headed by a seemingly benevolent Old Man (O’Herlihy). But the decline of inner-city areas, the Industrial-Military complex, the deliberate creation of economically defunct war-zone ghettos, the hegemony of profit over humanitarianism, the rampant privatisation.... all of these are with us right now, even more than they were in 1987. There’s even more obvious satire in the frequent media breaks, which satirise militarism, SDI and the lunacy of photo opportunity government. It’s easy to enjoy the fake adverts for “Nuke Em”, a game for all the family, but you might bear in mind that console games have far outstripped that in the intervening 17 years for sheer tastelessness.
Into this setting, full of political savvy, Verhoeven places his fast-moving, relentless action movie. It’s made with sleek confidence and it possesses a comic-strip energy that is neither self-conscious (as in, say, Batman And Robin) nor simplistic. The vividness of the best graphic novels is combined with a sure feel for storytelling so that you’re kept off-balance and wondering what’s going to be thrown at you next. The violence is pretty nasty and unremitting but in this extended cut, it’s so ludicrously overblown that it becomes absurd. So, the hapless executive at OCP is shot many more times by ED-209 and we get an almost balletic display of blood and entrails as his chest is torn apart. Verhoeven’s use of violence is very clever though. He can use it for absurd effects – as in the later disintegration of the criminal who has an unfortunate encounter with toxic waste – but he can also use it to shock and disturb. When Murphy is killed by Clarence and his gang, seeing his arm blown off gives the scene extra punch and serves to increase our empathy with the hero. It’s not a gloating shot and it’s held for a second at most, but it makes the point eloquently. It’s all in tone and timing, two things at which Verhoeven excels.
He also works very well with the actors. Robocop is unusual for the genre in that both heroes and villains are very well characterised. Peter Weller’s slightly reserved charm is ideal for Murphy in the first half hour and his ability with mime and body language is perfect for Robocop. The conflict within Robocop is a familiar one – half man, half machine – but the point isn’t laboured and the scene where he visits his old house and is assailed by memories of his family is very poignant. Nancy Allen, as Robocop’s partner Lewis, is also memorable; a very strong woman from a director who has usually managed to bring us interesting female characters. It’s certainly her best performance this side of Blow Out. The bad guys are also memorable. Ronny Cox is ideal as the slimy, infuriatingly smug Dick Jones and it’s this role which re-launched his career as a heavy. Kurtwood Smith, an actor who hasn’t done much of interest in recent years, makes the most of Boddiker, one of the most literate and intellectually able villains of the era – the kind of psychopath whose intelligence makes him all the more coldly sadistic.
It goes without saying that the effects, largely courtesy of Rob Bottin and Phil Tippett, are awesomely impressive. No CGI was used in the film, something which adds an extra layer of physical realism, and the limited use of stop-motion animation is painstakingly convincing. Verhoeven relishes the chance to realise big-scale scenes of pyrotechnic mayhem and the frequent bloodletting is occasionally hard to watch. But the human side of the story is never quite forgotten. Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner have provided a script which is always willing to go down a byway for a nice character moment and their dialogue is often very witty. In Murphy/Robocop they have created an ideal fusion between man and machine and this streamlined, perfectly paced film is all the better for it.