Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Future of Law Enforcement

Film: RoboCop
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

When the topic rolls around to great sci-fi action films of the 1980s, one that seems to get short shrift is RoboCop. I’m not sure why. One could mention a lot of films in Paul Verhoeven’s filmography. A lot of them are good, possibly great, and even the non-great ones are often campy fun. RoboCop is my favorite. It has all of Verhoeven’s signatures: high level violence, over-the-top gore, and camp.

In the not-too-distant future, the city of Detroit is in even worse financial straits than it is now. The city is a hotbed of criminal activity. The city has signed a contract with Omni Consumer Products (OCP), giving the company control of the police force. The company’s overarching plan is to hope that Detroit defaults, allowing OCP to take over and demolish Detroit, allowing them to create their own city of the future. One of OCP’s weapons in the crime war is ED-209, a mechanized police robot that malfunctions spectacularly in a board meeting. ED-209 is the brain child of Dick Jones (Ronny Cox). The failure of the project allows for the advancement of a new type of cop: the RoboCop project advanced by OCP executive Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer). To become operative, the project needs a fresh corpse.

That corpse comes in the form of one police officer named Alex Murphy (Peter Weller), recently transferred into the toughest section of Detroit. Murphy is paired with Officer Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen). On their first patrol, they come across Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith) and his gang. Boddicker is a known and wanted felon. Lewis and Murphy chase them to a factory. Lewis is knocked out and Murphy is very brutally slaughtered. Naturally, this makes him the perfect choice for the new RoboCop project.

What results than is surprisingly multi-layered for a sci-fi actioner. The surface story is more or less about Murphy working as RoboCop and cleaning up what is left of Detroit and discovering bits and pieces of his past that have somehow remained from his memory wipe. Beneath this story is one of the corruption in OCP. One of these subplots is that the OCP takeover of the Detroit police causes a great deal of friction and a threatened police strike, which only adds to the chaos. Another is that (of course) Dick Jones is actually running Clarence Boddicker and his crew and is the main force of crime in the city, and has planned for a number of contingencies, such as incorporating a protocol into RoboCop that prevents him from arresting any senior official of the company.

Verhoeven includes a number of stylistic touches as well. There are a series of fake commercials that run through the film not unlike the news clips he used in Starship Troopers. These not only push the apocalyptic nature of the society but also add a great deal of humor to what would otherwise be a pretty grim and dark spectacle of violence.

The story behind RoboCop is that it was originally given an X-rating for violence, and the version that was eventually released to the general public was the 12th cut submitted to the MPAA. I believe it. While it’s hardly extreme by today’s standards, there are moments of extreme violence here that serve no real purpose other than to be incredibly violent. The opening sequence with ED-209 for instance, is one of the more famous in the film. Demonstrating a routine arrest, it malfunctions and refuses to recognize that the “perpetrator” has disarmed himself. It then proceeds to pump round after round into him. The same is true of Murphy’s execution, which is horrific. Touches of violence like this run throughout the film. I can only imagine how much there must have been in the first cuts.

The most important thing to talk about, though, is the performance of Peter Weller. I admit that, barring Naked Lunch, I like Peter Weller, and I even like him in that film despite not thinking much of the film itself. Here, though, Weller gives a much better performance than the hyper-violent, almost-B-level science-fiction would seem to warrant. The key to his performance is that he genuinely moves like a cyborg. He isn’t exaggerated but is instead believably stiff in everything he does. My favorite affectation is his habit of turning his head and then turning his body to match the direction his head is pointed. Goofy sci-fi doesn’t really deserve this level of commitment, but it’s precisely what really sells the film.

Honestly, a lot of what goes on here is pretty interchangeable. This goes for most of the characters in most of the roles. The bad guys are melodramatically, wholly bad. The good guys are, for the most part, wholly good. And that’s okay, too. This is more about the spectacle of Verhoeven’s surprising amount of violence, the camp of some of the performances and the world the film inhabits, and the technology. It’s true that the special effects don’t hold up. ED-209 is clearly stop-motion work, and it’s painfully obvious. The makeup work, though, is still excellent. Weller really looks like he’s a part of the suit.

Ultimately, I really enjoy RoboCop. It had been far too long since I’d seen it. While not everything looks as fresh as it did 25 years ago, it’s still a win in general and still fun in all the right ways. But the main reason it works is because Weller took it more seriously than he had to. Good on him for playing the role the way it was meant to be played.

Why to watch RoboCop: Balls-out ‘80s sci-fi action the way it should be.
Why not to watch: Even toned down, it’s more violent than you remember.


  1. I thought I read somewhere that Weller was an aikidoka. I just tried to look that up, and didn't find the info after a superficial search. I may dig more later. I bring this up because (1) you're a practitioner yourself, so there's a kind of karmic connection there, and (2) Weller's martial arts skill (assuming what I read was true) might at least partially account for how convincing his physicality was. Actors with dance and/or martial arts backgrounds are often excellent when it comes to proprioception and body movement. Another example would be actor Robert Patrick, who was positively scary as the often-snakelike T-1000. Patrick is also a martial artist.

    1. I don't know about Weller's background/lack of background in the arts. I know for this role he worked a huge amount with a mime coach, who helped him determine the best way to move to convey the robotic element of the character.

  2. So I watched this sometime within the last 12 months. I hadn't seen the entire thing before, just bits and pieces over the years. So I finally checked it out and, shockingly... I didn't care for it. I don't really recall why. I vaguely remember just feeling... bored. I didn't hate it, just felt kinda bleh about it.

    1. This might be one that's more tied to its time than I would have thought. I'm not sure that your reaction is all that unusual. I've mentioned it in other places as a great action film and gotten lukewarm reactions before.

  3. I originally saw Robocop on TV, and while I've watched it a few more times, I'm not sure they haven't been on TV too. So I probably haven't even seen the most violent parts. The guy (Dr. Romano from ER) getting stuck in the acid is pretty nasty even on television.

    I'm a huge fan of Robocop. How can you not like a movie with Peter Weller, Ronny Cox, Kurtwood Smith, Miguel Ferrer, and Ray Wise? The extra touches from Verhoeven make it even better. The story also moves at a rapid pace and barely lets up; the editing is really sharp. I finally saw the trailer of the new one, and even if it's good, it still feels strange that it exists. It probably can't be worse than Robocop 2, though.

    1. I think I probably saw it on television first, too. I'd seen a less cut-down version of it, but even with that, I'd forgotten the level of violence here. It's really, really bloody. The execution of Murphy is incredibly brutal and shocking.

      I see that I didn't mention the great Ray Wise above. That's an oversight on my part. He's always fun, especially as a camp-ish villain.

      You're right about the pacing, too. I was what felt like 20 minutes in last night when I realized that I had about an hour of the film left.

  4. Like Saturday Night Fever this is another film I never saw until many years after it came out. I remember the controversy over the X rating. Originally the scene with the malfunction went on for over a minute with thousands of bullets pretty much disintegrating the man. Ah, those were the days when the MPAA actually had some sanity and considered violence worse than sex.

    When I did finally see it my reaction was like another commenter - it didn't really do much of anything for me. I didn't hate it, but not much in it kept my interest, either.

    And they're doing a 2014 remake of it with a lot of familiar faces, but a guy I've never heard of in the title role.


    1. I'm not much interested in the remake. I like this one because I admit it has some positive associations for me from when it was first around. I was right at the right age to appreciate it for its violent and strange qualities, and that sort of love sticks around.

  5. Siskel and Ebert had a big segment on their show about the violence in Robocop, specifically the ED-209 malfunction. They (rightly) interpreted the ultra-violent, extra long killing of the executive as a parody, making a point about our capacity to witness violence. They thought the MPAA gutted the scene by forcing Verhoeven to shorten it.

    I love Robocop. Murphy's fatal confrontation with the gang is absolutely horrific and terrifying. It's very effective in establishing how nasty the villains are and in creating vast amounts of sympathy for Murphy. I'd compare it in tone to Joe Pesci losing it in Goodfellas. The satire and humor are well-directed and the acting first rate.

    In short, I'd buy that for a dollar.

    1. It's a good point about the ED-209 malfunction. I hadn't considered it, but it does make sense, and it's the sort of boundary that Verhoeven likes to push. I wouldn't put it past him.

      For as violent as the film is, it is surprisingly funny at times--but you're right. There's a good amount of sympathy for Murphy, much of which comes out in the scene where he goes back to his now-empty house as well as the one in which he takes off his visor and sees himself for the first time.