RoboCop (1987) / Action-Sci Fi
MPAA Rated: R for pervasive graphic violence, drug use, brief nudity, and language
Running Time: 102 min.
Cast: Peter Weller, Ronny Cox, Kurtwood Smith, Nancy Allen, Miguel Ferrer, Dan O'Herlihy, Robert DoQui, Paul McCrane, Ray Wise, Jesse Goins, Felton Perry, Leeza Gibbons
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Screenplay: Edward Neumeier, Michael Miner
Review published February 12, 2006
A fantastic science fiction film, subversively posing as a cheesy b-movie, RoboCop is one of the smartest, funniest, and gutsiest movies of its era. Filled to the brim with cheeky social commentary, this is one of those rare action films that hits you heavy with satire, while also engaging you on the surface level with an intriguing story and a strong visceral dynamic. Paul Verhoeven (Total Recall, Hollow Man) introduces himself to American audiences, crafting the first of several of his engaging, ultra-violent films that would also rank among the best genre films of their era.
RoboCop is set in near future Detroit, where the city streets are just about completely dominated by the criminal element, while the police are neither respected nor welcome; they are virtually walking targets out there. Desperate to clean up the crime-ridden community and build a gleaming new one in its place, the government officials turn to OCP, Omni Consumer Products, to build and manufacture the future of law enforcement, robotic law enforcers that are more powerful and well-equipped than anything anyone has ever seen. However, when the first prototypes prove inconsistent, the city officials balk at the idea, so a faction in the OCP comes up with a newer, more "human" cop, built using the remnant body of downed officer Alex Murphy (Weller, Butch and Sundance: The Early Days), and dubbed simply as "RoboCop".
Things proceed splendidly for the RoboCop program, that is, until the human side of the cyborg begins to recollect his past life as Murphy, plagued with flashbacks to the family he lost and the criminals that all but ended his life as he knew it. Determined to bring the bad guys that did him in to justice, RoboCop sets out on a mission of his own, not realizing that the gang in question is actually in cahoots with the OCP, who for all intents and purposes, also own the city, the police department, and the machine side of him.
Verhoeven's a whiz here, treading the fine line between social commentary and exploitation in a way that he actually manages to pull off the double feat of being a great example of both. While much of RoboCop is extremely schlocky in execution, it is intentionally so, making fun of the very conventions that it also readily embraces, then kicking things into overdrive with over-the-top relish. A gamut of popular culture phenomena are skewered, from Detroit's crime-ridden reputation to the pacifying tendencies of bad television to senseless advertising to ratings-driven news reports to the decline of the American automobile industry to the stranglehold of American corporations on all facets of government. A brilliant blend of exhilarating action, psychological pathos, and dead-on funny satire makes for one of the more adrenaline-pumping action vehicles of the 1980s.
Verhoeven makes it all look so easy, so much so that one almost feels guilty for enjoying it, because, on the surface, it looks and feels like such a bad movie. Looks can often be deceiving, as RoboCop is, underneath the junk cinema exterior, one of the more intelligent and savvy thrillers of the science fiction genre, perhaps only bested by The Terminator in terms of blending intelligent, complex sci-fi with all-out supercharged action.
While RoboCop is a great film for sci-fi and action buffs, it should be noted that if you don't consider yourself to be among either camp, what you ultimately get out of the film will be limited at best. It's also quite graphically violent, purposefully gratuitous in many ways, although so absurd that you actually are able to distance yourself from the horrors of the sadism to actually find it amusing without feeling like a sick bastard. Again, if you can't stomach excessively bloody carnage, don't attempt.
RoboCop succeeds on many levels, but the one I'm most impressed with is in making us actually feel something for the cyborg at the heart of the film, with moments of surprising emotion at the core of what could have been a throwaway Terminator knock-off. For a film so excessive in nearly every department, the subtle moments remain the most powerful.
-- Followed by RoboCop 2 (1990) and RoboCop 3 (1993). Continues into a short-lived television show in 1994 and a miniseries called "RoboCop: Prime Directives" in 2000. Also spawned three animated TV cartoon series in 1988, 1994, and 1998. The series is rebooted in 2014 with RoboCop.
©2006 Vince Leo