Paul Verhoeven is not a great filmmaker. He’s not even one of those deeply flawed geniuses like Michael Cimino. But RoboCop is a great film.
One of RoboCop’s most immediately definable traits is how it's in on the joke over how campy the tone is. Black humor wed to hyper-violence is used to critique American tastes and values, and the film winds up playfully sneering at its target audience for showing up to pay for their movie ticket. Corporate climbers snark about their friends getting blown away by military industrial complex tech run amok before retiring to sex workers and blow for the evening. Ronny Cox (of all people!) is called on to bring a homoerotic edge to macho posturing in the executive washroom. Cops are being shredded in the streets like they are black people at the hands of the cops. People across all races, genders, sexualities, and income levels stop in the streets to cackle and howl at a television program that even John Kricfalusi would consider too lowbrow. Precincts are being bought up by Omni Consumer Products (OCP) to be used as testing grounds for undead cyborg law enforcement officers and matte black Ford Tauruses (the Future!).
This is the world RoboCop gives us, and it is fucking awesome.
While it’s technically not a comic book movie, it certainly feels like one: It’s establishment leftist tone is more focused, but the tone, pace, and overall feel of this film is very reminiscent of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, released by DC Comics a year earlier. RoboCop’s protagonist also bears more than a passing resemblance to the old 60s manga protagonist 8 Man. Not a comic book movie, but definitely a superhero movie.
Our basic plot: Newly transferred Good Guy Alex Murphy (played by real life hardass Texan/art historian Peter Weller) is blown away by drug kingpin Clarence Boddiker (portrayed by iconic heavy Kurtwood Smith). Up-and-comer Bob Morton of Omni Consumer Products uses the corpse in his newly greenlit RoboCop project, which was fast-tracked after his senior rival Dick Jones had his ED-209 mecha go rogue and murder a board member during a presentation. OCP is planning to gentrify Detroit on an unprecedented level, and they can’t just have Big Brother robots roaming poor black neighborhoods, murdering indiscriminately.
RoboCop, despite not being programmed with an ego, manages a sort of John Wayne swagger as he roves the bullet-riddled Old Detroit shooting baddies. It’s unclear who’s filing reports or taking witness statements for him, but I’ve seen buddy cop films with less adherence to reality than what’s on display here, so whatever. He eventually runs into the crew who killed him. This brings back dormant memories from his former life and causes him to start investigating the Big Baddie, Clarence. During a drug raid, RoboCop beats it out of the future Red Foreman that the reason Clarence is allowed to run amok in Old Detroit is that he works for OCP VP Dick Jones. When it comes time to haul Jones in, RoboCop’s hardware begins to shut down and Jones begins to gloat. We discover that RoboCop’s firmware contains a hidden primary directive file that prevents him from taking any executive OCP officer into custody (which admittedly feels much less shocking in our post-Snowden/Manning 2015 than it probably did when America was still reeling from the Iran-Contra scandal). Jones dispatches Clarence Boddicker to eliminate Bob Morton, and sics ED-209 (and most of the police force) on RoboCop. He also outfits Boddicker’s crew with ridiculous boom-stick-looking weapons that can turn cars into crumpled, flaming bits of scrap. After the obligatory woodshed-beating of the hero, RoboCop recovers to kill all the evil characters on screen, shooting Jones through a skyscraper window after the company president angrily shouts “You're fired!”
Looking back at a film made the year after I was born, I’m fascinated by how the cynic tone of the film takes shape. More precisely, how naive and optimistic late 80s cynicism looks to cynic eyes in the 21st century. When RoboCop is drilled about his primary directives after his first deployment to the police precinct, he responds with “Serve the public trust, protect the innocent, uphold the law.” Verhoeven (and presumably most of the audience) just assumes that the corporate, technocratic authority of the near future places humanity and the public trust above things like legalistic concerns, liability, etc. Also, the shocking reveal of Prime Directive 4, which prevents RoboCop from arresting a senior executive of OCP, feels like something out of that one Wired article your friend on Facebook shared but you never read. Our post 9/11 reality has (correctly) instilled in us the notion that authority is never subject to the rules of governance it carries out under threat of violence, rendering a deadly reversal more of a “duh” moment. Hell, as of writing this, the US Government is still trying to distract the world long enough that everyone forgets about all the people it just murdered during an intentional, prolonged shelling of a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan. As for the War on Cops as portrayed in the film...err, yeah. That one’s just silly.
Lest we walk away thinking ol’ Paul is just another hippy dippy utopian blowhard, he does work in some scathing, near nihilistic jabs at Reagan Era incompetence during the Frank Miller-esque news update, which serves as a cold opening to the film; an armed Pretoria is threatening nuclear winter if their white supremacy is overthrown, a Star Wars satellite accidentally malfunctions and wreaks biblical havoc with its laser cannon, and Old Detroit is essentially a grimy concrete maze of viaducts, rape, and murder via concussive explosions. That morning crew sure is pleasant to watch, though! The lead anchor is even of Asian descent! Such Future!
80s action and future Twin Peaks cast alumni aside, the best part of this film is how Verhoeven blends noir elements with crass, black humor. Everything OCP does under the auspices of Dick Jones is a lives-costing boondoggle, designed to generate revenue streams as opposed to functionality. RoboCop can’t reconcile the vestigial memories of Murphy’s family nor can he shake the pang of loss. His humanity bubbles towards the surface enough to claim his name, but he has next to nothing left of his old life to salvage. The good guys come out on top in the end, but only after (literally) eviscerating the criminal element. And while we’re left to assume that Murphy and his pseudo-partner Lewis ride off into the proverbial sunset at the end, what exactly are they riding off to? OCP is still going to step on Old Detroit to enact its Neo-Babylon project called Delta City. Murphy might have his name back, but his future doesn’t promise anything beyond that disgusting baby food paste Bob Morton’s crew developed for him. The formulaic ending and soaring Basil Poledouris score allows the viewer to let it all cheerfully slide down the back of their throat a la Rocky IV, but it leaves enough laying around that you can construct “what’s next?” scenarios as bleak and hopeless as you want. One thing’s for sure: Nothing about this crackerjack film warranted sequels or a family friendly tv show. A.