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Tonight's Feature Presentation

ROBOCOP (1987)

Starring: Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Kurtwood Smith, Ronny Cox, Dan O'Herlihy, Miguel Ferrer

Written By: Edward Neumeier, Michael Miner Directed By: Paul Verhoeven

The Short Version

You can learn a lot about the 1980s by watching this movie.

The only place RoboCop knows how to get to is over the top, and it’s a violent blast.

It’s also a remarkably smart film, if you feel like paying attention to such things.

The only formula in this movie is the stuff that RoboCop is supposed to eat.

RoboCop is a true classic of the 1980s; if you haven’t seen it, see it, and if it’s been a while, rediscover it.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?


I’m certainly not going to tell RoboCop that he’s not worthy of the good stuff.

Pairs Well With...


Seen just before the start of the third act being pulled back straight from the bottle as the chaos erupts all around.  Hey, I’m all for it!

“No better way to steal money than free enterprise.”

Once upon a time, not so many moviegoers outside of Europe had ever heard of Paul Verhoeven.  Then he took the helm of RoboCop, and everything changed.

As would happen with most of his Hollywood films, the thing that grabbed the public’s – and especially the media’s, and the censor’s – attention was the extremely over the top violence of a sort that just tended not to show up in a mainstream action movie.  RoboCop flirted with an “X” rating in a way normally reserved for slasher flicks, and even what made it past the MPAA was pretty gruesome.

More to the point, it was awesomely gruesome.

And even more to the point is the fact that this awesome gruesomeness itself has a point.  Indeed, RoboCop is full of them.  For a flick that most people choose to define by its unrelenting blood spatter, RoboCop is actually amazingly smart, and indeed, prophetic.

“Dead or alive, you’re coming with me.”

Our story begins in an unspecified but not-too-far-off future Detroit.  The city’s economy is in ruins, and crime runs rampant.

Yes, I’m still talking about the plot of a movie made in 1987, and not the real headlines of twenty years later.  But anyway.

City government has found its wit’s end, and decides that it doesn’t want to directly deal with the crime problem anymore.  To that end, they’ve contracted out to corporate giant Omni Consumer Products to manage the police department.  The cops themselves aren’t happy; now not only do they have criminals to worry about – most notably a cop-killing crew run by a man named Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith, Fortress) – but they also have to deal with corporate restructuring as officers are shuffled from precinct to precinct.  There’s even talk of a strike.

Of course, a present strike would present the perfect opportunity for Omni Consumer Products to step in and introduce its newly designed urban pacification/military robot, the ED-209, using Detroit as a showcase from which it could in turn get itself some fat military contracts.  Too bad the ED-209 doesn’t work well enough for prime time yet.  What the company needs is a stop gap measure: a human police replacement that won’t concern itself with things like striking, and that will effectively take out the criminals so that the company can begin its multibillion dollar urban renewal program.  Maybe a cyborg… a “RoboCop”…

All they need to get that ball rolling is for a flesh and blood cop to “volunteer” for the cybernetic transformation by dying.  As it so happens, a happy go lucky fellow named Murphy (Peter Weller, Leviathan) has just been transferred to the worst precinct in the city.  Better have that trauma team ready…

“Shit! I’m out of ammo!”

Speaking of that trauma team, let’s start off with the thing that everyone remembers even close to two and a half decades later, and that had the media and do-gooders of 1987 up in arms.  That thing, of course, is the massively over the top violence.

RoboCop pulls no punches.  Bullets fly by the thousands, and when they hit something, you know about it.  If they hit an inanimate object, it either explodes or breaks apart in some other spectacular fashion.  If they hit something living, the red stuff flows like a waterfall.  This is a movie where amputating someone’s hand via shotgun blast isn’t enough; it’s followed up by a gun-emptying festival that ends up severing the rest of the arm, too, the results of which leave a puddle of blood big enough to swim in.  By the time the guns are empty, the audience is either saying “Ew!” or “Wow!”  (Full disclosure: I said “Wow!”)  And that’s just one scene; RoboCop has lots of others very similar to this placed at regular intervals.  It never, ever lets up.  This movie’s idea of a clean kill involves being kneecapped and left to lie just out of reach of a grenade with the pin pulled.

And yet, it all has a point.  Here, the phrase “over the top” is a euphemism based upon common standards; within the parameters of the story, the violence really is not over the top.  The streets of Detroit are presented as being bad enough to qualify as a literal war zone (remember, ED-209 is supposed to be a military robot), and in that scenario, the violence is either accurate or toned down.  (Watch an uncensored Vietnam War documentary and try to say otherwise.)  Yes, the violence and the blood are prolific, but they’re never gratuitous: they are always very much a part of the story.  They’re not “shock” moments designed to keep a bored audience’s attention.  (Though some do still have the power to shock if you didn’t know they were coming.)  The difference is important, much as is the case of a special effects driven story vs. story driven special effects.  (Here, just considered the special effects to be blood.)  The former is usually boring eye candy, while the latter is interesting.  RoboCop is interesting.

“It's back!  Big is back, because bigger is better than ever!  6000 SUX: An American Tradition!  [8.2 MPG]”

RoboCop is also a multileveled allegorical satire, if you pay close enough attention.  (No, satire does not need to be comedy, though there are certainly some dark laughs to be had here.) 

First, it tells you a lot about the culture and the fears on the time during which it was made, the 1980s.  This is apparent not just in the production design, but also and indeed more so in the “Media Break” news reports and commercials that appear throughout the movie.  Start with the gang violence in Detroit; change that to gang violence in America at large, and there’s a lot of the 1987 news already.  There’s a civil war in Mexico, with rebels blowing up the airport in Acapulco; you couldn’t watch news in the 1980s without hearing about some Latin American country or other engaged in a civil war.  Add to it the fact that one character laments that this will mess up her vacation, and there’s a neat little social commentary on the average American’s shit-giving about the rest of the world being made.  (“If it doesn’t directly inconvenience me, it is not my problem.”)  Speaking of the uncaring consumer, even as people are losing jobs, the hottest item being advertised is a deliberately wasteful vehicle.  The President gives a press conference from the orbiting “Star Wars” military defense platform, which is President Reagan’s dream military project (and media favorite for much of his Presidency) made real.  When the platform malfunctions and vaporizes some cities, including one to which two former Presidents have retired, it’s treated as fluff by the news anchors, who have come to regard their job as more entertainment than anything else.  Look hard enough and there’s the start of a time capsule sociology class here.

And that’s all before one realizes how accurate RoboCop turned out to be.

“I had a guaranteed military sale with ED-209!  Renovation program!  Spare parts for 25 years!  Who cares if it worked or not?”

The fall of Detroit?  Reasonably accurate.  The 6000 SUX?  Change it from a sedan to an SUV and call it Hummer; accurate.  Drones to replace live military, which is the concept behind the ED-209?  Accurate, except that the real ones look like big model airplanes instead of something from Robotech.  Private contractors taking over for armed government authority?  Accurate.  (Do you realize how much of the American military presence in the Middle East is actually contractors?)  Corporate entities deliberately creating a crisis for profit?  I’ll let conspiracy theorists decide how modern-accurate it is, but if you’ve ever looked into William Randolph Hearst and the Spanish-American War, it has been proven to happen.  Substandard products for fat military contracts?  Duh.  And with the possible exception of the free flowing blood, anyone who tries to say that the movie’s portrayal of corporate America isn’t accurate or even perhaps generous simply hasn’t worked in an office building lately.  Indeed, just about the only thing that Verhoeven’s film gets wrong outside of its obvious cyborg conceit is that the journalists have decided to make their faces grim instead of happy while delivering their “infotainment.”

[An interesting sidebar comes from the film’s most recognizable physical prognostication.  RoboCop is the first place most people ever saw a Ford Taurus being used as a police cruiser.  However, Ford so hated the idea of being associated with this project that they refused to have any formal connection to the film, and made the producers buy cars off the lot; you’ll also notice that the Ford logo is removed from the cars.  And yet, police officers in general responded very well to the movie, and the Taurus ended up being one of the most popular police cruisers of the next twenty years.]

“Murphy… it’s you!”

And yet, with all of the free flowing blood, socio-political commentary, and incredible attention paid to world building, at the end of the day, RoboCop is all about its characters, especially, of course, the guy in the title. 

Director Paul Verhoeven has called RoboCop his “Christ character”; there, I think he’s very heavily pushing it, though if you want to look for them, you can see the shots he put in to make some connections.  Actor Peter Weller, meanwhile, has called the character “my contribution to cinema,” and that, I think, is very, very accurate.  Let’s face it, until you saw him show up on the History Channel in his latter-day real life role as a university professor, the thing you knew Weller for was and is playing RoboCop.  It really is the role of a lifetime, and the character is one of the great enduring icons of 1980s filmmaking.  Some of it is the suit, sure, but really, it’s Peter Weller himself who makes this movie memorable.  For all of the excellent work being done around him by Paul Verhoeven and the production design team, RoboCop simply doesn’t work without a superb performance from Weller, and the man more than delivers.  Though he plays a cyborg who speaks in a computer-echo monotone, he nevertheless brings a deep humanity to the character.  Yes, RoboCop is a badass, but he didn’t ask to become what he is, and he suffers greatly when he regains knowledge of his own past.  Weller brings this across beautifully, and even before the visor comes away from his face, he conveys emotion on a level that the audience can’t help but latch onto.  That metal suit is even more restrictive than a mummy wrapping in terms of allowing expression, and yet Weller pulls it off.  There’s a reason that the franchise fell apart when Weller stopped playing the character, because in the end, it is Weller specifically who makes RoboCop work.

With that said, a hat must still be tipped to both writers and crew for giving him not only emotion but also badassery to work with.  Particularly amazing is the scene wherein RoboCop deals with a would-be rapist (a shot that was reconstructed on the fly, so to speak) with awesome results.  I’ll leave you to be surprised if you haven’t seen it yet.  And even if you have, it’s definitely worth seeing again.  RoboCop is one of those true classics that just don’t lose luster with time; if anything, it’s even more powerful today than it was back in 1987.

“Your move, creep.”

Before we go, still another hat needs to be tipped to the supporting cast, who are fabulous across the board.  Kurtwood Smith’s sadistic bad guy is a blast, and Nancy Allen (Dressed to Kill) is perfect as Murphy’s partner, Lewis, in turn allowing Peter Weller’s performance to shine that much more as his character rediscovers himself with her assistance.  And if Ronny Cox (Total Recall) and Miguel Ferrer (DeepStar Six) aren’t the perfect corporate sharks, I don’t know who would be.

“Thank you for your cooperation.  Good night.”

Bottom line, RoboCop is one of the great action classics of the 1980s, remembered most for its blood and action, but also worth remembering for its effective satire and depth of story, and its willingness to thumb its nose at the standard formula of the day and just go for what it had the potential to be.  If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s definitely worth your time, and if it’s been a while, it’s worth seeing again.  Indeed, RoboCop only seems to get better with age, and few films so tied to the culture of their time of origin can say that.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, November, 2011

You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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