#1 in my ranking of the RoboCop franchise.
A staple of the 80s, Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop is an almost ideal mix of satire, black comedy, and action, bringing a combination of European arthouse sensibility and spectacle driven action filmmaking that turns what could have been just a dumb sensationalist exploitation film into something rather special. There’s an energy, humor, and anarchic spirit, all of a decidedly 80s flavor, that gives this 104-minute long movie (the shortest of the franchise) real entertainment value.
Omni-Consumer Products has entered into a contract with the City of Detroit to manage the police force in preparation for OCP to begin construction on Delta City, a massive project to turn Detroit from a crime-ridden slum into a clean and futuristic city. Crime is blowing up, and OCP needs to come up with a solution to it. In a managers meeting of the highest level, Dick Jones (Ronny Cox) presents the ED-209 to the Old Man (Daniel O’Herlihy), a massive robotic urban pacification unit that instantly glitches, killing a junior manager, and fritzing out. Taking advantage of the opportunity, Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrera) inserts himself with his own assigned project, the RoboCop program, that he had been assigned as a backup in case the ED-209 failed.
In walks Alex Murphy (Peter Weller), a good cop transferred from a safe precinct to one of the most dangerous precincts in the city. On his first day out with his new partner Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen), they get a call to go after Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith), a local gang lord fresh off his latest bank robbery. The arrest goes bad, and Murphy is horribly murdered in a hail of gunfire. He wakes up with a digitized view of the world as people talk over him about keeping his arm or not, screwing lenses over his vision, and with bios text running on the side. Of course, this is the creation of the titular RoboCop. He goes out and he’s a crime fighting machine, presented with plenty of opportunity to blow criminals away in interesting and often quite funny ways.
It’s amazing to think that Ronny Cox and Kurtwood Smith make two of the best bad guys in 80s popular cinema, but they do. Cox plays Dick Jones with such sleezy contempt, subdued and barely contained rage, and real menace. When he grabs the back of Morton’s head in the executive bathroom as a threat, it feels shockingly real. Cox may not bring a physical intimidation to the role because he’s just a corporate executive, but he does bring a palpable sense of danger nonetheless. Smith, the short, bespectacled bald man, on the other hand, is surprisingly intimidating physically. He gets into everyone’s face and obviously enjoys the pure excitement of crime. Throwing his own man out the back of a truck to fight off the cops, blowing a cop’s hand off with a shotgun, or spitting blood onto a pile of police paperwork when he’s brought in on arrest, demanding his phone call with complete disdain, is fantastic.
The satirical meat of the film is directed at corporate culture, though, and this is where the movie shines the brightest. The black comedy of a junior executive getting blown away by a giant robot in a huge boardroom on the 90th floor and the Old Man sighing and saying that he’s deeply disappointed it just a pinpoint satirical jab. The complete disregard for anything other than military contracts instead of actual results is the same. However, it never descends into caricature because of Miguel Ferrera. As the hungry and rapidly climbing Morton, he brings a surprising charm and even likeability to the character, especially in the moment he unveils RoboCop to the world, looking at him like a father would a child.
For a while, though, it seems as though we have two competing storylines that will never merge, OCP unleashing RoboCop on Detroit and RoboCop dealing with phantom memories left over from his past as Alex Murphy, centered around Clarence Boddicker and his gang who killed him. They two storylines do merge, but my only real complaint with the film is that the merging kind of comes out of nowhere and it’s kind of weird at the same time. For instance, RoboCop tracks down Boddicker and gets him to admit that he’s working for Jones. A few days later, Jones invites Boddicker up to his office and yells at him because Boddicker involved Jones in the whole criminal element of his plan…in his office where he had invited Boddicker himself. How they came together is unclear, why they came together in the first place is unclear, and how and where they communicate is weird. It’s a relatively minor complaint, though.
There are two major visual reveals in the film around RoboCop (his complete mechanized form, and after his decision to remove his helmet), and both are obscured intentionally. The first view of RoboCop in the film at all is in a television monitor in the bottom left hand corner of the frame while the second view is in a dirty, imperfect mirror. I find this interesting because, I think, it points to the heart of the film. One of the amazing things about the film is that it’s such a delicate balancing act between a few different tones. There’s the satirical one around OCP. There’s the action elements that almost border on goofy. And then there’s the sentimental side of things.
Murphy is treated like a real character even after he becomes RoboCop. It would have been easy to take it too far, his feelings of lost humanity, though. They could have had him try and reconnect with his wife and son after he regains some semblance of who he is, but instead his previous life is kept in the form of flashbacks, keeping it relatively generic in feeling. In a full, quickly paced film, it’s not about him finding time to reconnect with an individual from his past, it’s about him trying to find his humanity as a first step in what could be a longer road of self-discovery. There could have been a low-budget dramatic approach to this story, but in the context of an 80s actioner, keeping it at this level provides a surprising amount of pathos while keeping it at the appropriate level for the kind of movie it’s in.
There’s so much entertainment to be had with Verhoeven’s RoboCop. It’s funny, thrilling, and even a bit touching. It probably could have used another quick pass to integrate the two competing storylines a bit better, but that’s small beans compared to the whole.