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Robocop1

It’s always a hoot to look back on bygone visions for “the future,” now that we’re firmly ensconced in it. The Jetsons promised us flying cars, Silent Running (1972) posited orbiting outer space greenhouses and 1984…well, we all know how rosy that was supposed to be, don’t we? While most notions of the future do a fair amount of credibility stretching (where are all those instant food machines and self-dressing booths that were supposed to make life so easy?), few have managed to be quite as fanciful as Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop (1987): after all, this is a film that envisions Detroit as a bankrupt, crime-ridden wasteland, foresees mega-corporations taking over law enforcement (to the mass detriment of the lower classes) and theorizes that cybernetic implants will one day be advanced enough to allow the severely disabled and/or injured to resume some semblance of autonomous movement…in other words, what a bunch of malarkey, eh?

In all seriousness, despite its often campy tone, the original RoboCop is actually a pretty lean, mean, relentless little bruiser, similar in tone to Cameron’s original Terminator (1984) or Miller’s inaugural Mad Max (1979). Like these franchises (or pretty much any action franchises, to be honest), the original film is a much more modest, grounded affair than any of the resulting sequels. Thanks to an ever-prevalent streak of pitch-black humor and some great performances from the likes of Peter Weller, Kurtwood Smith (That ’70s Show’s Red Forman), Nancy Allen, Ray Wise and Ronny Cox, RoboCop is a fun, exhilarating and clever peek into a future where business and bureaucracy are king and humanity’s future rests on a pair of very sturdy steel shoulders.

It’s the mean streets of Detroit, in the near future, and the city’s police department is run by the omnipresent OmniCorp (OCP, to the punters), the kind of all-reaching octopus conglomerate that has its tentacles in everything from gene research to government insurrection to military weaponry. OCP CEO Dick Jones (Ronny Cox) has a pet project that threatens to revolutionize law enforcement and allow for the clean-up of the city’s crime problem ahead of a sparkly new development deal dubbed Delta City: the all-robotic, crime-fighting ED-209. Only problem is, the thing doesn’t work, as we see when it blasts a hapless volunteer to kingdom come during a test run in the board room.

Enter Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer), a pretender to the throne with his own plan: the RoboCop project, wherein real police officers are infused with state-of-the-art cybernetics in order to create superior “cyborg” cops. They need a subject, of course, which comes around in the form of Murphy (Peter Weller), an eager-beaver, rising star who gets transferred into hell on earth and is promptly shot to shit by the villainous Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith, chewing delicious scenery by the mile) and his murderous street gang. Legally “dead,” Murphy is turned into the titular hero, a galvanized steel “peace officer” whose just as likely to leave the suspects in pieces.

As RoboCop cuts a swath through Detroit’s criminal population, he begins to regain some of his basic humanity, thanks to the attention of his former partner, Officer Lewis (Nancy Allen), and some recurring memory snippets that give tantalizing hints of his former life and family. Torn between being a soulless machine and a living, breathing human being, RoboCop fights with retaining the essential humanity that made him “Murphy.” As he gets closer to the criminal mastermind who originally ended his life, however, Murphy will learn that the web of corruption spins all the way to the hallowed halls of OCP’s upper echelon. Will RoboCop have what it takes to put an end to the evil or will the very nature of his existence prevent him from dispensing the justice that Detroit so desperately needs?

One of the biggest pleasures of Verhoeven’s RoboCop is the assured way in which the Dutch director builds his dystopic world, using a combination of pitch black humor, pulse-pounding action setpieces and some truly cool special effects, including some nicely realized stop-motion animation. The satiric commercials that break up the action are frequently funny (the one for the Nukem board game is simply sublime) but they also help to give peeks into the larger world, the skewed, slightly scary one that exists outside the framework of the film, proper. The series actually develops this further in the second installment but it’s a great aspect and really adds to the overall feel.

Any pulpy action flick lives or dies by two elements: its action sequences and its cast. In both of these aspects, RoboCop comes across as a pretty stellar example of the genre. While Weller’s performance here is iconic, it’s just one solid performance among many. Nancy Allen is great as his spunky partner, while Cox and Smith are pitch-perfect as the arch-villain and his sleazy second-in-command. Boddicker’s gang is one of the great groups of cinematic baddies, spotlighted by an incredibly spirited turn by veteran Ray Wise as Leon (the scene set in the “punk” club is absolutely delightful).

While it might be easy to associate Verhoeven with his most outrageous “low” (that would, of course, be Showgirls (1995)), his resume also includes Total Recall (1990) and Starship Troopers (1997): the director clearly knows his way around sci-fi action and the whole shebang kicked off with RoboCop. The film is full of great action moments, shootouts and car chases, reminding of the aforementioned Mad Max and Terminator in the ways in which the setpieces always seem grounded in some kind of physical reality, regardless of how fanciful the action gets. It’s the kind of physicality that gets lost in modern CGI-based action films and gives RoboCop a bruised, scuffed feeling that fits like a well-worn shoe.

Similar to the Mad Max and Terminator franchises, the RoboCop franchise would go on to bigger, louder and more outlandish heights in future installments. While the other films in the series all have their charms (the third one, much less so, admittedly), my heart will always belong with Verhoeven’s brash, snarky and full-blooded original. When the satire, action and political commentary all hit their mark, there are few ’80s blockbusters that are in the same league as RoboCop (no matter how many times I watch the finale, I always stand and cheer at the “You’re fired” line). Jones and Boddicker are classic villains, RoboCop is the quintessential knight in shining armor and Anne Lewis is just the kind of partner that you want watching your back, when the chips are down.

In an era where business and technology continue their vociferous joint march to the sea, it’s kind of nice to see a film where the little guy wins, even if we know that OCP is going to keep trying to get their pound of flesh long after the cameras cut. More importantly, RoboCop still holds up today as a great action film: compared to other ’80s fare, it’s much less dated and more streamlined. While it’s undeniably pulpy, it’s also pretty hard to hard to deny the film’s allure: you might have the right to remain silent but I’m willing to bet you’ll be doing a fair amount of cheering, too.

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