Retro Review: Robocop (1987)
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Writers: Edward Neumeier, Michael Miner
Stars: Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Kurtwood Smith
A review by Stacy Dooks
Certain media arrives at exactly the right time in your life. The real test of its quality is if you can appreciate it first as a kid and then later as an adult. Paul Verhoeven’s action science-fiction satire Robocop, released in 1987 by Orion Pictures, is easily one of my favorite films of all time. I first experienced the action/superhero flick as a kid. With its biting social satire, I sat back and watched the 30th-anniversary screening at the Globe Cinema in Calgary this Thursday past.
Written by Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner, the film’s script is an engine of pure storytelling efficiency. Omni Consumer Products (OCP) is a mega-corporation on the cusp of laying claim to the city of Detroit, rebuilding it into the massive new gentrified metropolis of Delta City. The only thing standing in their way is the city’s high crime rate. Having entered into a partnership with the city’s police department, they intend to create the future of law enforcement.
Vice-president Dick Jones (Ronny Cox) presents his creation ED-209, which fails spectacularly (to say the absolute least). The Old Man (Dan O’ Herlihy) is very disappointed. An enterprising young security concepts executive named Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer) has started to develop the Robocop program in the event of just such a failure. He’s placed police officers in Old Detroit in high-risk areas to increase their viability. Remember this bit. We’ll come back to it later.
Enter Alex Murphy (Peter Weller), a good cop who’s transferred into easily the worst precinct in the city. They’re understaffed, overwhelmed, and threatening to strike. Murphy’s partnered with Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen) and sent out on patrol. With a name like Murphy, you can probably guess his level of luck. He and Lewis end up in hot pursuit of crime boss Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith) and his gang. With backup too far away to help the two cops boldly (if not wisely) pursue Boddicker and his gang into an abandoned steel mill. Lewis gets incapacitated, thanks to an errant look and Murphy is left to the tender mercies of Boddicker and company. He’s shot into a mass of tenderized meat and left for dead, but fate has other plans.
Murphy soon finds himself resurrected as a nigh-invincible cyborg. He slowly begins to rediscover his humanity as events soon conspire to have him investigate the circumstances of his own gruesome murder. Murphy’s buried humanity struggles to come to the surface as his investigation leads to the highest echelons of OCP. Can Murphy recover his soul and bring down the men who murdered him?
I. Love. This. Movie. I’ve loved it since I first rented it on VHS when I was eleven years old. I’ve loved it faithfully ever since. Robocop is very many things. A social satire, a rumination on violence and its ultimate cost, a parable about an American Jesus (really, that’s what director Paul Verhoeven had in mind). Above all else, it’s a film that resonates just as powerfully today as it did back in the 1980s. Corporate control of public institutions, the police becoming increasingly militarized, consumerist culture run amuck and the media cheerily parroting the platitudes of the ruling class. Everything old is new again.
Robocop is a film that rewards you, not only upon second viewing as an adult but for anyone with interest in the art and craft of storytelling. The script itself is a master class in economic, lean writing. Each character beat and every event in the film moving with (pardon the pun) mechanical precision. Guns hung on the wall in act one. Character beats mentioned in passing pay off later in the film. When they do, they’re pulled off with aplomb.
The acting is great. Peter Weller pulls off the emotional range with little more than body language and the lower half of his face. Kurtwood Smith as Boddicker is a sight to behold. If all you know him from is That ’70s Show, buckle up. You’re in for a surprise. Miguel Ferrer’s Bob Morton and Ronny Cox’s Dick Jones are delectably sleazy. Nancy Allen was one of my earliest crushes in the badass role of Lewis. Light years away from her role in Brian De Palma’s Carrie.
The movie works as a send-up of the action hero genre. You also realize something that’s lost in all the excitement: the bad guys win. Murphy gets his justice, but OCP will keep right on chugging with nary a feather ruffled on their way to Delta City. Clarence Boddicker might have pulled the trigger, but wasn’t it Bob Morton who placed him in the line of fire in the first place? Does getting resurrected as a cyborg powerhouse make up for Murphy’s brutal killing? The film raises these questions even as it’s barreling through its action movie plot. It makes for some fun post-viewing discussion fodder.
Should you see Robocop? Emphatically yes! It’s a classic of the genre with a helluva lot to ponder wrapped in an action package that’s a complete hoot. It deserves a place of honor in the collection of every science fiction fan. Highly recommended.