RoboCop

RoboCop

*****

Reviewed by: Scott Macdonald

Watching RoboCop after all this time is a refreshing experience. It's so rare to find such an obvious example of an Eighties feature film that is as relevent now as in its time. It is a strange effervescent brew of late Eighties cynicism, Forties comic book science fiction, dry references to Robert Heimlein and violent, bloody gunplay. Paul Verhoeven gives these ingredients a flavour of his earlier Dutch work - and often startles the viewer with his imagery and ideas. A cross-pollination of tough Dirty Harry and Frankenstein.

The film forgoes opening credits to bombard the viewer with news and media, serving as unintrusive exposition, and moments of high jiggery-pokery. Regan's Star Wars peace platform is decimated rigorously by the filmmakers - with two gags both involving US Presidents. (They even come complete with adverts - NUKEM! - a brilliant jibe at Cold War-era Mutually Assured Destruction.) The Mediabreaks and the lovingly synthetic adverts provide cheap, amiably comic interludes in the mechanics of the plot.

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The screenplay is a cleverly calculated one-two punch, it starts with light corporate culture satire, yet quickly delves into something far more brutal. Alex Murphy - a policeman graphically slain by sadistic criminals in a withering storm of shotguns - is quickly introduced. The omnious OCP corporation - who have taken over the police department and seem intent on crushing labour unions into the ground - turn Murphy into the cyborg of the title. He is quite literally privatised into an unwitting servant of corporate capitalism - fascism for neoliberals. And with the human policing cash-strapped, OCP turn a huge profit by providing their mechanical solutions to human problems.

Peter Weller trained extensively in mime before taking on the role of RoboCop. Remarkably, he sells the idea that there is, indeed, a machine walking across the frame rather than coming across as just a "guy in a suit" gag. Verhoeven and Weller get a fair amount of dramatic juice out of his new identity and its nature. We empathise with the confused being, despite his mechanical curse. It's not an irony that he's a much more interesting person inside the RoboCop prison, than outside as Murphy. The music, echoes the juxtaposition between Murphy and his new blend of artificial brute strengths and weaknesses - with a fitting mixture of synthetic score and full orchestral movements.

Verhoeven pushes a maelstrom of metaphors and visual constructs - chiefly the idea of Murphy's death as crucifixion and his resulting obscene technological resurrection as the story of Christ. (I'm not sure I buy it, since Christ didn't go around dishing out instant justice with a Very Big Gun, but it's there in construct, if not effect.)

Police brutality is also given a thorough working over, with Murphy roughing up suspects. And there is strong fetishistic gunplay - which would never even be considered post-Columbine - which Verhoeven handles with a lightness of touch. In fact, apart from injuries to the protagonists, most of the gunplay is played for laughs. A shoot-out in a drug factory, where the framing is mostly low angle, plays up the comic-book nature of the violence, and is edited using weaponry as percussion. Heck, it's not even a well pieced together gun slinging scene, but is fearless in its silliness, and has plenty of guile.

The moments of outlandish black comedy are shocking and satisfying. Gags such as Dr MacNamara - the architect of the Vietnam War - also being chief architect of the failed ED-209 robot project provide amusement. We see his robot gleefully and vividly proved to be bug-ridden crap, with a poor-shmuck-of-an-executive being blown to bits on top of a corporate city model. The fountains of gore a delicious metaphor for the human struggle at the heart of the city.

If this was all that RoboCop was about - a string of gags held together by the framework of a good action movie - it would be an easy-going film, not a splendid one. What raises its game is the excellent writing, Verhoeven's airtight direction and capable handling of the script, the solid and entertaining, if unremarkable, action set pieces, and the eye-popping visual design and effects. RoboCop is a great marriage of silly action movie and wit.

It seems Verhoeven needs an excellent script before he can deliver a quality movie. Starship Troopers is another cast-iron script which became RoboCop's spiritual brethren. On the other hand, the mildly insulting and silly Total Recall and the nausea-inducing Hollow Man are proof that a lousy script can't be lifted by Verhoeven's European sensibilities.

Reviewed on: 07 Mar 2011
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Cyborg cop tackles bad guys on the streets and in the boardrooms of Detroit.
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Director: Paul Verhoeven

Writer: Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner

Starring: Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Dan O'Herlihy, Ronny Cox, Kurtwood Smith, Miguel Ferrer, Robert DoQui, Ray Wise, Felton Perry, Paul McCrane, Jesse D. Goins

Year: 1987

Runtime: 102 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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