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RoboCop Print E-mail
Tuesday, 01 January 2008

ImageSome movies diminish in power over time; what once seemed bold and innovative can often seem later—after imitators—tired and uninteresting. Not so with “RoboCop.” If anything, it seems even better now than it did when first released 20 years ago. The script by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner still seems sharp, satirical and inventive; the direction by Paul Verhoeven seems even more creative and dynamic. Sure, he’s excessive—sometimes it seems as though that’s his middle name—but it’s controlled excess, especially in the very gory and violent version of the film on this DVD.

The movie was very popular, establishing Verhoeven as one of those rare foreign directors (rare since the 1930s, anyway) who smoothly slipped into an all-American mode for his first movie in this country. The swift pace never slags; the often dry humor is deftly caught; the satiric elements are never overdone; the action scenes are dynamic and exciting. Some derided the film for being excessively comic-booky, but since that’s exactly what was intended, it’s hard to cite that as a fault. In fact, “RoboCop” may be the best comic book movie ever made—that wasn’t based on a comic book. It spawned two theatrical sequels (distinctly inferior to this one), a live-action TV series, at least two animated series and several videogames. RoboCop was clearly an idea the public embraced.

The story is set in Detroit in the near future. We are quickly introduced to the disturbingly violent world by sunny newscasters played by real newscasters Mario Machado and Leeza Gibbons, adroitly parodying themselves. “Give us three minutes and we’ll give you the world.” Commercials are also sharply satiric without ever going too far. (“Remember—we care.”) “RoboCop” seems even more timely now than in 1987; we have too many politicians who want to “privatize” everything, and in the world of the movie, that has already happened to the Detroit police force, now controlled by swollen conglomerate OCP. It’s headed by an apparently benign Old Man (Dan O’Herlihy), whom we meet as he presides of a demonstration by his right-hand man, Dick Jones (a sleek, impressive Ronny Cox). He wants to show off his newest product, ED-209, a sturdy law enforcement robot. However, once engaged, ED-209 proves very hard to switch off, and he blasts a hapless board member to bloody chunks before the robot can be shut down. “Dick,” the Old Man says sternly, “I’m very disappointed,” as the bleeding body of a staff member is nearby sprawled over a model of OCP’s master project, a complete rebuilding of Detroit.

But this gives the opportunity for weasely, ambitious Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer) to make his move—he wants to supplant Jones. Morton is in charge of the company’s RoboCop project, and we soon learn what this is.

Family man cop Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) has just joined the police division in charge of the roughest area of Detroit, where 21 cops have been killed in the last year. He’s quickly partnered with tough Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen), and they head out on patrol. They soon encounter the criminal gang led by spectacle-wearing Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith, just great), but the gang turns the tables on the two cops. Murphy is blasted apart by shotguns. Lewis gets the medics to him, however, before Murphy dies—an event we see from his point of view.

Time passes, and we retain Murphy’s point of view after he is brought back to life. Morton coldly orders him trimmed down to just a head, torso and elementary digestive system, then rebuilt—as RoboCop. When he’s put into action, he doesn’t remember his name or even that he once was human. He’s just exactly what Morton said he’d be: a one-man police force, the cop who never sleeps, who always knows the law. Even though Lewis recognizes him as Murphy, RoboCop needs no partner.

We follow RoboCop on a few missions, all of which he handles sternly and efficiently, including the fiery arrest of Emil (Paul McCrane), one of Boddicker’s gang. (A small grin: this vicious gang of hoods is led by a guy named Clarence, and includes one named Emil. Not major badguy names.) But when RoboCop returns to the station every night to be recharged, he has dreams of Murphy’s life (wife, son, attractive home on Primrose Lane), and he vaguely recognizes Emil, one of the men who killed Murphy. He visits the house on Primrose Lane and finds it deserted—after Murphy’s death, his wife and son moved away. He’s shattered.

RoboCop now becomes a cyborg possessed—he gets a list of Emil’s associates from the Detroit PD data system, and sets out to hunt each of them down. When he finally catches up with the arrogant, brutal Boddicker himself, the crook mentions a name: Dick Jones.

Meanwhile, Jones has taken care of the Morton problem—or rather, has had Boddicker do it for him. It turns out that the most vicious gang in Detroit is in league with tycoon Jones. But when RoboCop shows up at OCP headquarters to arrest Jones, he finds he cannot. We knew he had three directives: (1) Serve the public trust, (2) Protect the innocent, and (3) Uphold the law. Now he learns his programming contains a fourth directive: hands off OCP executives. Now what?

Now what is more action and mayhem as the movie rockets to its conclusion.

Even if you remember the movie clearly, you might not recall that it’s frequently funny, both satirically and in an especially all-stops-out gruesome fashion, as when the executive is blasted into hamburger by the haywire ED-209. That scene, and the shooting of Murphy, were trimmed to get the film the R rating it had in theaters, but they’ve been restored here to all their gory glory. And it is a kind of glory—Verhoeven goes right up to the edge of “too far” but never quite steps over, at least for some viewers. If you’re even a little squeamish, be prepared, or just don’t watch the movie.

The RoboCop suit was designed and built by Rob Bottin, one of the most creative special effects makeup artists Hollywood has ever known. His finished work is sometimes not as sleek and undetectable as that of Rick Baker, but his conceptions are entirely his own, stranger and more interesting than almost anyone else’s. When RoboCop removes his helmet, revealing a metal head but Murphy’s human face, Bottin succeed at something few makeup artists have dared to try: he does a REDUCTIVE makeup. That is, he makes part of Weller’s head look smaller than it actually is. Incredible. Bottin doesn’t work much any more, but with this movie, “The Howling,” “The Thing” and Verhoeven’s “Total Recall,” he established himself as an awesomely creative technician.

The RoboSuit is excellent, helped immeasurably by Peter Weller’s controlled, intelligent performance. With the help of choreographer Moni Yakin (father of director Boaz Yakin), he created very robotic movements—notice how his head and torso move separately. First his torso turns to the new position, then his head. Everything about RoboCop’s movements is impressive, a tribute to Weller, who has never had another part this good. (He returned as RoboCop in the first sequel, but was replaced in the third and on television.)

All the actors are great; this was the first time Kurtwood Smith (later a regular on “That 70s Show”) caught the attention of regular moviegoers. His Boddicker is memorably loathsome, quick to kill his own men if that will help him get away, brutal and vicious—and pleased with his own sadism. With his balding pate and wire-rim glasses, he looks like a sardonic math teacher, but he’s a great bad guy.

So is Ronny Cox. Until this movie, he was known for playing nice-guy daddies, but he clearly got into this role with relish and enthusiasm. He’s sleeker, certainly more urbane, than the jumped-up street thug Boddicker, but he’s even more cold-blooded, and much smarter. The two share a great scene: Boddicker is about to leave Jones’ office when Dick lures him back like a magnet with a promise of looting Detroit.

Miguel Ferrer, son of José Ferrer and Rosemary Clooney (and George Clooney’s cousin), had been kind of batting around Hollywood for a few years when he landed the VERY juicy role of Bob Morton, and he runs with it. He’s mean, heartless and arrogant—but fatally, just too damned cocky. Now he’s a mentor to women in TV series, currently a show about another cyborg, “Bionic Woman.”

The script by Ed Neumeier and Mike Minor is polished and clever; it was the first script for either. Neumeier later rejoined director Verhoeven for “Starship Troopers,” and has written a couple of straight-to-video sequels to that one. The movie is full of amusing conceits; TVs are often on the background, and everyone seems to watch a show about the same coarse comedian (Benny Hill without the sleek sophistication) whose catch-phrase, “I’d buy that for a dollar!” has caught on in an amusing—and annoying—manner. Commercials turn up from time to time, including for a gas-guzzling behemoth the SUX 60000 (this is Detroit, after all).

Phil Tippett was in charge of the stop motion animation of ED 209 (and excecutive producer Jon Davison provided the voice), which is exciting, convincing and occasionally funny, as when the big guy tries to navigate a staircase. Stop motion used in this manner has now been entirely supplanted by CGI, but as anyone who’s loved a Ray Harryhausen movie knows, this has not always been an improvement. Despite the various faults of stop motion, it has a visual quality that is attractive in and of itself; there should be room in today’s movies for stop motion monsters.

The score by the late Basil Poledouris is one of his best; he scored it like a TV cop show, with a theme for RoboCop that’s exaggerated just a tiny bit, so it’s effective both as a driving theme and as a slightly oblique comment on the over-the-top nature of the entire film.

Disappointingly, there are no extras on the disc other than the theatrical trailer. This is an interesting movie, on which a lot of people did creative, imaginative work—and they’re still available for interviews and commentary tracks. Fox really dropped the ball here.

Nothing much has been gained by presenting the film in high definition. The movie was shot with slightly soft focus; the occasional effects shots have to include two film generations of at least part of the shot, so these are just a shade less distinct than the rest of the movie. But it didn’t harm “RoboCop” twenty years ago, and it doesn’t harm it now.

Even though the film is free from any specks and unwanted marks, it also evidently has not undergone a restoration process. The movie looks almost as good as it did in theaters in 1987—but not one whit better.

“RoboCop” is a treat, a movie that has improved with age. At times, it’s extremely violent—but it’s also occasionally very tender. It’s rough and brutal, but also very funny. Avoid this if you don’t like graphic violence, but if that doesn’t bother you, be sure to add this to your collection. Hot damn.

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