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Robocop, written by Michael Miner and Edward Neumeier, directed by Paul Verhoeven, 1987, 110 min.
Robocop is one of the few action movies from the 1980s that is still worth watching. It's also excessively violent, as might be expected from director Paul Verhoeven; somewhat unexpectedly, it succeeds at balancing satire and action and humour all at once, a feat that has evaded Verhoeven since (more on that in a minute). Robocop is only glancingly science fiction, but it's definitely a strong story.
Robocop tells the story of a future Detroit beset by urban decay and crime. Murphy is a cop, out on patrol with his new partner, Lewis, when they come across a crime in progress. They follow the crooks, all the while asking for backup, but there's no backup to be had because the police force is simply stretched too thin. The two cops decide to follow the criminals into their hideout; Lewis gets knocked unconscious, and she can't get to Murphy in time to save him from a violent death. Meanwhile, at the evil corporation OCP, the executives are planning to profit from the lack of human police officers by providing some sort of technological solution. One exec favors the ED-209, which stands for enforcement droid, but in a gorily amusing scene (which I will discuss in a minute) this particular option is put on the back burner. A younger exec uses this opportunity to pitch his Robocop program, in which (very) recently dead police officers are used to create a heavily armored cyborg. Murphy, dead only a few hours, is the perfect candidate. As Robocop, he is soon back on the street, but does he remember that he was Murphy? And will the corruption at OCP ever be uncovered?
At the surface level, Robocop is a very slick superhero story. Yes, it is violent, but it is very efficiently constructed, more so than many other glossy B-movies. Our sympathies are firmly on the side of Robocop, despite the fact that he is a brute vigilante. Lewis is a strong and active female character, ultracompetent at her job, and perceptive -- the number of movies with such a character is depressingly slim. Also, the writers have an intuitive grasp of the old dramatic rule: if you show a gun on the mantelpiece in Act 1, you have to use it in Act 3. As Robocop begins to remember his past life, he bulls his way into the restricted police archives; he interfaces with a computer by way of a pointy metal spike that pops out of his hand. Ridiculous, of course, and the police who are trying to stop him choose that moment to let him do what he wants. Sure enough, later, during Robocop's final confrontation with the crooks, the head crook makes the mistake of venturing too close to Robocop and he gets it right in the neck. This is a perfunctory use of that dramatic rule, but the writers aren't done yet. Robocop has to confront the corrupt executive at OCP and when he goes to present his evidence by interfacing with the computer, his pointy metal spike still has blood on it (and the data transfer still works!).
This brings me around neatly to the issue of violence in the movie. Robocop was the first movie Verhoeven made in Hollywood, and the first of four science fiction movies to date. To my mind, Verhoeven's use of violence has become progressively more misguided. Robocop makes it easy for us to cheer for all of the gleeful mayhem on screen, even though it is still somewhat problematic. The movies that followed -- in order: Total Recall, Starship Troopers, and Hollow Man -- featured a pseudo-profound sense of violence as satire that became ever more unbearable, especially as these notions were delivered in the context of soggy and recycled B-movie plots (more so than this movie). In other words, Robocop is the best of a bad lot. Yes, Robocop is a fascist and trigger-happy vigilante, but the crime-ridden future is carefully constructed to make the choice of cheering for Robocop so deeply buried as to be inevitable. Verhoeven's movies attempt to have it both ways, to pander and to criticize, but the later ones somehow miss out on the mix of violence, humour, pathos, and sharp characterization that makes Robocop successful.
DVD Note: Robocop is one of the few instances of a DVD where the Criterion edition is not the recommended one. Robocop was one of the first Criterion releases, and it has a disjointed audio commentary, some thrown-together text features, three storyboard features, and no choice but to watch the more violent edition of the film. A later release by MGM gives viewers the choice of versions, an audio commentary track that is recorded together, a 40 minute making-of documentary, and a few other features. Unfortunately, this edition, depending on the vendor, might be available only as part of the Robocop Trilogy box set; the second and third movies are inferior and not worth the extra money.
First posted: October 28, 2001; Last modified: March 24, 2004
Copyright © 2001-2004 by James Schellenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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