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Friday, November 20, 2015

RoboCop (1987)

Checkpoint Telstar is proud to take part in the 180-member Criterion Blogathon, celebrating the 30th birthday of the coolest and best media release company of ever (sorry, Rhino Records). Click on that banner to go to the main Blogathon page and read some fantastic film criticism looking at gems of world cinema from the silents to today.


Written by Ed Neumeier & Michael Miner
Directed by Paul Verhoeven

Peter Weller:  Officer Alex J. Murphy
Nancy Allen:  Officer Anne Lewis
Robert DoQui:  Sergeant Warren Reed

Kurtwood Smith:  Clarence Boddicker
Ray Wise:  Leon Nash
Paul McCrane:  Emil Antonowsky
Jesse Goins:  Joe Cox
Calvin Jung:  Steve Minh

Miguel Ferrer:  Bob Morton
Ronny Cox:  Dick Jones
Dan O'Herlihy:  The Old Man

The Criterion collection turns 30 years old this month. For everyone who followed a link here about the blogathon celebrating this event, skip to the next paragraph if you want. You already know what I'm going to say here. Criterion dedicated themselves to the preservation of world cinema and the easy access of film as art to home audiences back when VHS was the preferred home viewing technology for most audiences. Back when they were pressing laserdiscs they pioneered things like widescreen presentation at home as well as mini-documentaries and commentary tracks to show the process by which films were made; basically, what is standard on a DVD release for virtually anything exists because the Criterion people came up with it. Through their efforts, American audiences are able to watch mind-blowingly great movies from Japan, India, Iran, Hong Kong, Mexico, Italy, France...the world is a Criterion fan's oyster. They've done more than anyone except possibly Michael Moore to get documentaries out in the public consciousness and seen by mass audiences. Next time you're at the library trying to decide on a movie (and if you're not hitting your local library for free DVDs, you are a fool) you're guaranteed a good time if you just look for that C logo on the spine or cover. If you're a Hulu subscriber you can stream dozens of selections from their archives as well; streaming video makes it possible for Criterion to get masterpieces of the cinematic art to you without anything more complicated that fiddling with a remote control for a moment. They've been working for three decades to raise the awareness and availability of cinema as legitimate art in the mass market.

Which raises the question of why exactly the fuck they put RoboCop out on DVD, in a cut even gorier and more violent than the already blood-soaked R rated version. In a nutshell:  Because the movie is legitimately brilliant and a work of razor-edged satire aimed straight at the beating heart of the Reagan years--culturally and cinematically. Similar to something like Airplane! or Black Dynamite, the makers of RoboCop realized the best way to satirize the action movies of the 1980s was to make one that was only about ten percent more ridiculous than the ones that were already being made. At the same time they were also poking holes in the cliches inherent to superhero origin stories twenty years before American audiences knew who Tony Stark was. There's a lot more going on in this flick than just the old story of "boy meets girl, boy loses life, boy gets turned into unstoppable killing machine to seek vengeance on his killers". And the craft of filmmaking is on display in this movie almost embarrassingly well. Verhoeven gives the impression of knowing exactly what he was doing from the first images to the last, down to the design of the props and costumes and the pounding orchestral-industrial score courtesy of Basil Poledouris.

The film starts (after the logo pops up) with a commercial break that does a deft job of sketching out exactly what's going on in the science fiction world where murdered policemen can become titanium-kevlar avatars of justice. First up is a news bulletin with the slogan "You give us three minutes and we'll give you the world". Which, if anything, is optimistic now (here in the real world, CNN can take ninety days and just keep talking about one missing airplane or vanished blonde woman). The future as presented here is 1987, but worse and funnier. The apartheid regime in "the besieged city-state" of South Africa is planning to use a neutron bomb to kill people if they have to as a final defensive measure. The "Star Wars orbiting peace platform" had a technical glitch before the (unnamed) President could give a press conference, turning off the gravity and making everyone flail around in zero G. Then there's a commercial for the Family Heart Center, which I'm pretty sure was meant to poke fun at the dental clinics that were opening in Sears department stores around that time. But it's also a way to show the technological and medical progress that has been made in the movie's future society. If getting an artificial heart is something that can be done so routinely that there's a chintzy shot-on-video commercial telling people where to go to get one, medicine has advanced in this society far beyond where it is here on Earth-Prime in 1987.

Then it's time to prove that if it bleeds, it leads. A cop killer is operating essentially with total impunity in Detroit; Clarence Boddicker, a middle-aged white dude with eyeglasses, has been fingered as the man killing police by the dozens in "Old Detroit", which--in the film, of course, not in real life--is a crime-ridden shithole where good men die every day. There's a sound bite from Dick Jones, the department head of the corporation running the Detroit PD, telling the police essentially that life sucks and they need to stop whining. The cheery newscaster's "Good luck, Frank!" sent out to a hospitalized cop in critical condition sets the tone even more than the artificial heart commercial. This is going to be a film full of life-threatening injuries and poorly conceived responses. And it's going to be queasily humorous, with the viewer perhaps not certain if they should be finding this stuff funny since there's a grotesque human cost behind each joke.

Setting handily introduced, it's time to meet the protagonist and his supporting cast. "Detroit -- Police Precinct, Metro West" is the caption, and a mid-20th-century brick building in the shadows of glass and steel skyscrapers is the place. Inside there's everything the viewer would expect from an action movie--a scummy lawyer, massive crowds, outdated office equipment (and the furniture is wood rather than the sleek glass and metal on display in all the corporate offices), and there's no way the coffee in that building tastes anything like the actual drink. Desk sergeant Warren Reed is the breathing avatar of harassed, underfunded authority figures in action films. Of course he's hot-tempered enough to grab the aforementioned lawyer and physically shove him out of the station. And of course he's not thrilled that some newbie from the cushy "Metro South" posting has been transferred over to join his jolly crew ("We work for a living here, Murphy," is how he makes his opinion known). Given that the first thing he hands Officer Alex J. Murphy is a requisition ticket for body armor, one assumes he knows what he's talking about.

In the police locker room, Murphy mentions that Omni Consumer Products has been transferring lots of newer officers to Metro West lately, so perhaps Dick Jones is just blustering for the news cameras and he's at least trying to make things a little better in Old Detroit (SPOILER:  Nope. And that spoiler gets dropped mere seconds into the sequence in the police locker room, when a litany of complaints from several officers are mentioned ranging from bad radios to the lack of available helicopter flights when people have been shot in the line of duty).

The gripe session is interrupted by the desk sergeant coming in to clean out the fatally injured cop's locker (this sequence ends with a closeup on Murphy's name plate on his own locker, in some not-very-subtle foreshadowing). The sarge also says striking isn't an option--yes, the police have a union, but if they weren't out on the street at least keeping a lid on the most flagrant street crime, Old Detroit would be on fire in a matter of minutes. Murphy gets suited up (uniform, helmet, armor, gun) and goes out to meet his new partner, Officer Anne Lewis--who gets introduced beating the piss out of a handcuffed perp that threw a punch at him. Murphy gets to the car first and takes the drivers' seat, and the newly paired officers go out into the day to fight crime and hopefully not become two new casualties on the news.

Elsewhere, Bob Morton (project manager, Omni Consumer Products) is on his way to a meeting where something big is going to be announced. One executive thinks it's the long-promised "Delta City" initiative being greenlit but it's something less impressive than tearing down and rebuilding Detroit. It's a crime-fighting robot with military and crowd control applications, the nine foot tall, bulletproof, machine-gun-toting Enforcement Droid 209. ED-209 has a sophisticated artificial intelligence and a pre-programmed series of behaviors meant to guide it through any commonly encountered situations in its somewhat narrowly-defined task list. The ED-209 is going to be needed to clean up the crime-ridden slums of Old Detroit before the hundreds of thousands of construction workers come in to give the city a complete makeover, of course. What this means in theory is that criminals toting submachine guns outnumber and outgun police who have pistols but the ED-209 would make short work of them.

What it means in practice is a scene that plays out like a ghastly joke. An executive named Mr. Kenny gets blasted into hamburger thanks to a software glitch (he throws his gun down during a simulated crime but the robot doesn't hear it). The assault droid tells him to put down his weapon, counts down the time left for Kenny to submit without noticing that he did so, and then says "I am authorized to use physical force" before opening up with four .50 caliber machine guns at the same time. This is terrible news--not just for the junior executive who's got a family that will be cashing in his accidental death and dismemberment plan, but for OCP. After all, having to make something that actually works is far more expensive and time-consuming that making something that can be placed on the market. Ask anyone who owned a Ford Pinto. The Old Man, the CEO of the whole damn company, is less than impressed by this product rollout. At least was in a closed setting rather than, say, on national television.

But, as business gurus in the Eighties were fond of saying, the Japanese characters for "crisis" and "opportunity" were identical. While the stink of cordite and blood is still hazy in the boardroom air, Bob Morton makes his move and tells The Old Man that he's got a project that might be able to help OCP in this time of crisis. Dick Jones, the man in charge of the ED-209 project (and second-in-command of all of OCP) doesn't want to give Morton the opportunity to speak to the CEO, but there's only so much a gentle suggestion can do in the face of something as disastrous as the product demo that's dripping into the boardroom carpet. Morton gets the go-ahead to make something of the RoboCop initiative, since the alternative would mean delaying the Delta City project at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars at the least. Oh, and as part of his sales pitch, Bob Morton says that he's been sending unprepared police officers into hot spots, which is why Alex Murphy got transferred from a nice precinct to a hellhole.

A moment here, by the way, to praise Phil Tippett for his animation of the ED-209 stop-motion prop. He manages to imbue a sense of menace into the machine, making it lunge forward towards Mr. Kenny while playing a tape of a lion's roar to provoke fear and intimidation but also moving like a device and not like a creature. The actual stop-motion model was likely the size of a big action figure, and there's a full-sized mockup that was built for scenes where someone has to interact with a non-moving ED-209. But it's the animation sequences that bring the creation to life. This movie is nearly thirty years old, but the effects when the ED killbot is moving around don't look dated whatsoever.

So, back to the narrative:  That whole put-inexperienced-cops-in-horrific precincts plan bears some fruit when, as Bob Morton puts it in an elevator ride, "some poor schmuck volunteers". Guess who that's going to be? It turns out that, inexperienced or not, Officer Murphy is a showoff (he's practicing his gun-spinning tricks because his son watches a TV cop that does the same thing, and he doesn't want to disappoint his kid by not being able to do the same thing). There's some very appealing earnestness to Murphy's character here; he's square and a little embarrassed to be talking about whether or not he's spinning his Glock like a Wild West gunfighter because his son likes that or if he does. It's about the only chance we get to know Alex Murphy before everything goes to hell. The radio mentions a robbery that just happened and the silver panel van full of criminals that's on "Industrial Way" right this moment. Officer Lewis hops into the drivers' seat and the two cops speed off in pursuit of the criminals.

And it's Clarence Boddicker and his gang in that van, which was inevitable as he's the only criminal mentioned in the screenplay so far. He's got a gang that's all white except for one token Asian and one token black dude and the action sequence that follows shows his ability to think on his feet and his utter ruthlessness. When his driver Emil spots the cop car behind them, Clarence is smart enough to realize that they won't be able to outrun the law, so they slow down for a gunfight. Officer Lewis, however, is smart enough not to stay behind the van when the back doors open to reveal everyone firing shotguns at the surprisingly empty road. A running gunfight ensues, with Murphy hanging out of the passengers' window with a pistol in each hand and the criminals getting away for the moment when Clarence throws a wounded gang member out of the van as a distraction.

But hey, considering the number of dead cops that Boddicker and his crew are responsible for, a draw is a moral victory. The police follow the van to an abandoned steel mill, and once inside manage to get the upper hand for a moment before Lewis is knocked unconscious by one of the gang members and Murphy gets captured by Boddicker himself. The crime boss takes a little time to psychologically torture his captive before his men literally shoot him to pieces (it plays out like a hyperviolent take on the sufferings of Christ with a balding crime boss toting a shotgun standing in place of a Roman with a mallet). He screams and twitches as the gang fires until they're out of shells, and then Clarence Boddicker administers the coup de grace with a point-blank pistol shot. I think it's with Murphy's own gun, which he lost to Emil when he got surrounded.

Back in 1987 I remember a friend's mother being disgusted with the movie--without having seen it--for its multiple scenes of graphic violence. She claimed it had been cut down from an X to an R rating, which I have absolutely no problem believing. I also happen to think that showing violence as something horrific and painful is better for an audience than showing it as something casual; think of all the post-killing quips that action stars tended to dispense after brutalizing someone. If I have to make a choice, I'll go with the Pulp Fiction style of violence where something that takes less than a second has to be addressed for the next fifteen minutes of film rather than just watching an extra's shirt puff out and he collapses in a heap.

Officer Lewis sees this all happening but she's powerless to stop it. The best she can do is call in a medevac when she realizes that even though one of his arms is completely gone and the rest of his body is riddled with shotgun pellets, Murphy is somehow still alive (and, given the previous cops' complaints about slow response from medical services as well as Bob Morton's statements about needing a volunteer for the RoboCop project, it seems likely that there was some high-level OCP interference that guaranteed Murphy would get a priority ride to a nearby trauma center).

The next sequence is shot simultaneously from close in to watch the surgical team at work and from Murphy's point of view as he dies--either showing what he sees as the doctors lean in to inject him with drugs or use the defibrillators that every medical scene where a life needs to be saved get called into service (as well as his memories of his wife and son, which is the first time we've seen them in the film). The trauma team does everything they can think of (apparently Verhoeven's direction to the real-life doctors was "just do what you would normally do in this situation" and he filmed it), but there's just too much damage to Murphy's body and brain to keep him alive. Which would make for a very short movie, but remember that commercial earlier for the Family Heart Center? They're an example of what medicine and engineering can do in this brave new world with enough money. Or, to put it another way that science-fiction fans of 1987 would probably recognize:  We can rebuild him. We have the technology.

So yeah, that screen's going to go black and silent, but it won't stay that way for long. However, as the news bulletin of the malfunctioning gravity on the space station showed showed (and as the disastrous ED-209 rollout confirmed) the technology isn't quite perfected yet. Static and a rolling picture fill the camera's point of view as people dart into the frame and whatever is left of Officer Alex J. Murphy's body. It would appear that he's completely paralyzed at the start since the camera never moves, regardless of what's happening in his field of vision. And considering that nobody that shows up explains anything to "Murphy" as he lies there in some kind of life-support coffin there's a remarkable amount of exposition that gets delivered. Among other things, Bob Morton himself stops by to complain that the engineering and medical teams worked some kind of miracle and preserved Murphy's left arm ("I thought we agreed on total body prosthesis,"). Morton then realizes that the slab of meat underneath him is still alive and is assured that they're going to wipe Murphy's memory before installing the RoboCop programming. They disconnect the gear that lets Murphy (and the audience) see what's going on and everything goes black--for how long, nobody can say. It's at least possible that every time the picture goes out there's a delay of hours, days, or even months before it comes back up. Time does pass (there's a snippet of a party where one of the project heads is smashed and gives "Murphy" a kiss to ring in the new year) and eventually all the bits and pieces of "titanium laminated with Kevlar" are attached to the new metal body for the few remaining organic pieces of Officer Murphy.

This scene, while demonstrating all the various things that are being done to Murphy's body, also trains the audience to understand that when the horizontal scanning lines and superimposed green computer text are on screen, they're seeing things from RoboCop's point of view. It's also used to demonstrate the superpowers he's picked up as part of the compensation for the total loss of his body and perhaps his soul. Among other things, he's got perfect recall thanks to an onboard camera and taping system and an advanced targeting computer that means he's superhumanly gifted with the ten-pound pistol stored in his right hip. And don't forget the massively increased strength and immunity to conventional weapons. If he could jump a couple hundred feet in the air he'd have the same powers as the original-model Superman in 1938, more or less.

Metro West precinct, the fortress in the worst neighborhood of Old Detroit, turns out to be the place where OCP installs the monitoring and tech-support equipment so that RoboCop has a place to go inert from time to time (Sergeant Reed starts with a tirade about OCP interfering with his station house but goes silent when he sees the seven-foot-tall blue steel cyborg walking down a hallway--and so far, the audience hasn't gotten a good look at the RoboCop suit yet thanks to only seeing it on a video monitor and through a pebbled-glass window, which means they're now really interested in seeing how Officer Murphy survived, and what's left of him). And think about how fast this narrative moves--thirty minutes into the film and the world has been introduced, the villain and his gang have demonstrated their evil nature and psychopathy, the hero gets a brief moment to show he's a decent guy, and then he's been blasted to pieces and resurrected as a walking tank. Oh, and I love the shot of the various police running down a hallway at the station house to get a better look at the new guy.

Bob Morton and his technicians, talking to each other, drop more exposition on the audience. There's enough of Alex Murphy's organic body left that he does have to eat; there's a gloppy brown "rudimentary paste" extruded from a machine that keeps whatever parts of him are still left alive and ticking. According to Morton's second in command, it's essentially baby food and it tastes pretty decent. We also get a look at RoboCop's onboard tracking system from his point of view and a better look at the robot suit during the shots not shown from his point of view. Morton asks him what his Prime Directives are (the software commands running his actions), and RoboCop recites them:  Serve the public trust. Protect the innocent. Uphold the law. Fans of Asimov's laws of robotics will note that there's nothing at all about the preservation of human life in this list. And Bob Morton doesn't know--but the audience does, thanks to a RoboCop POV shot with the text laid over it--that there's a fourth, classified, fourth directive that hasn't come into play yet.

The next we see of RoboCop he's qualifying for duty at the precinct firing range. All the other police eventually stop shooting when they hear the staccato bark of his gigantic phallic symbol, er, duty weapon, and crowd around him as he sets a new high score at the target range. There's also a budget-conscious effect here. First we see the neat round holes blown in the plywood targets when Officer  Lewis is working through a clip of ammunition, and then jagged, splintered craters blasted out of the targets from RoboCop's portable WMD. Watching the wooden targets getting softball-sized holes blown in them lets the audience know just what's going to happen to any criminals that come across the bad side of the titanium-kevlar cybernetically enhanced long arm of the law.

And though the audience knows it's the remaining eight or ten pounds of Alex Murphy inside the "total body prosthesis", nobody else in the film does. But Officer Lewis puts two and two together and immediately gets the square root of 16 when she sees the newly unveiled supercop spin the gun around his index finger and re-holster it just like her recently deceased partner did on their first and last day together on patrol. (Seeing the gun get tucked into the inside-the-thigh holster is another effect that helps sell the illusion that there's nothing human left inside that robot body, by the way.)

The hardware works, the software checks out and RoboCop has just overqualified at the pistol range, so it's time for it--him--to go out on patrol. Thankfully, Old Detroit being the open sore that it is, he's not out for more than a couple minutes before the people living there get a look at what he can do. A man in a duster coat with a submachine gun wants to rob a liquor store. Check out the comics rack he walks by--there's issues of ROM:  Spaceknight prominently shown, which was a Marvel title about a warrior sealed inside a suit of armor he could never escape to fight evil--someone knew enough to stick that in the front rack of the comics as a tip of the hat to another property about a cyborg with a gun (for that matter, there's some Iron Man comics in the rack as well, another character who needed cybernetics to keep himself alive while doing superheroic stuff). When the shop owner's wife hits the silent alarm button, it happens that RoboCop is nearby, so he just walks in and scares the crap out of the robber, who empties the gun at him to absolutely no effect. Turns out one punch from RoboCop is enough to flatten the dude. One assumes other patrol officers collect the criminal and book him, because during this sequence we never see the hero of the film doing any police paperwork--just handing The Fear out to the criminal element to the delight of the audience.

The second incident where RoboCop intervenes is a woman, pursued by two giggling psychopaths, cornered in an alley and about to be raped at knifepoint. Like every good guy does, RoboCop gives the criminals a chance to surrender and like every Escape from New York refugee in movies like this they don't take it. The guy with the knife escalates the situation and RoboCop shoots him in the balls (through his hostage's skirt, and without inflicting so much as a scratch on the woman). And audiences who just saw the massive damage done to the shooting-range cutouts wince (or cheer) at the thought of the rapist's junk getting blown into chunky salsa in his jeans. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the second guy surrenders without a second's hesitation.

Hell yeah there's a Criterion disc where a criminal gets shot in the groin with a bullet the size of your thumb. That's because it's a brilliant scene where that happens. Filmmaking is an art but it's also a craft, and the set design, props, costuming, sound effects and bullet squibs are all used brilliantly in this sequence to make the audience cheer when the creep with a knife gets a .50 caliber vasectomy. It takes a skilled craftsman indeed to sell a groin injury to the audience as well as Verhoeven does here. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker it would have turned out to be something like Death Wish 3, which is the same "one man cleans up the crime-ridden city" narrative but without a twentieth of the wit and ability that went into this film. Without Paul Verhoeven's guiding hand at the till, the satire in the script could have been backgrounded and this film would have wound up just like any other Weightlifter with a Machine Gun film that clogged the cineplexes of the mid-Eighties.

Speaking of satire, the next crime that RoboCop spots on patrol is a hostage situation at City Hall, where Old Detroit's mayor is staring down the barrel of a gun. About a dozen cameramen and reporters are there to interview the negotiator until they see a literally shiny object in their field of vision and run over to RoboCop. I love the petulance from the negotiator when people stop paying attention to him. During this sequence we learn that RoboCop can see through walls (X-ray vision, more or less...sound like any other bulletproof, super-strong crimefighters you know?). Punching the hostage-taker through a window in view of the cameras leads to another media break, where the talking-head newscasters can't find enough good things to say about the masked man that's cleaning up Old Detroit and also finding time to talk to children at an elementary school and give sound bite level interviews ("Any special message for the kids watching at home?" "Stay out of trouble.").

After a commercial for a board game called "Nukem" it's back to the news, where the newly safe streets of Old Detroit mean that the planned construction of Delta City looks like it's going on after several delays. Bob Morton, the man of the hour, tells the assembled news reporters that he's predicting the end of street crime in Old Detroit in six weeks--and that has to be thanks entirely to RoboCop, since every other police officer we've seen so far is only human and outgunned by all the really dangerous criminals. The interview with Morton leads to a scene where another executive congratulates him on a promotion to Vice-President of his division at OCP. One assumes The Old Man rewards people who get results, and scraping the accumulated human filth off an entire city in under two months certainly counts for results. During a pit stop at the executive bathroom, Morton talks smack about Dick Jones, and all the other people inside flee when it becomes apparent that Jones was there all along in a toilet stall and heard everything. Jones vows to destroy Morton and the RoboCop project, because it's one thing to clean up the city and make the million-job construction project possible, but it's quite another to make the ED-209 look bad (and make Jones look bad at the same time). Open disrespect in the world of OCP could well be a capital offense.

After that, we see RoboCop at rest in his brain-monitoring chair back at the precinct station. While the technicians fail to notice the memories showing up on the video screens it becomes clear that whatever process the OCP mad scientists used to blank Alex Murphy's memory out, it didn't take. The EEG readings go insane while RoboCop has a dream where he's a human, shot dozens of times by criminals, and executed by the balding glasses-wearing ringleader. His reaction is strong enough and obvious enough that eventually the techs notice something's going on and he strides out into the night partway through his rest period, not obeying any of the OCP personnel that try to stop him. A panicked call gets sent out to Bob Morton and Officer Lewis happens to pass the cyborg in the hallway, calling him "Murphy" when it becomes apparent that RoboCop doesn't know his own name. He staggers a step back when he hears that name and leaves, his voice even deader than it was after his technological resurrection.

Old Detroit's a big city, but with all the small-time criminals suddenly figuring out that they'd rather go to barber college than get their entrails blown out from a Desert Eagle on steroids, it's only the real psychos out at night causing trouble now. Which means that RoboCop encounters one of the men who murdered Alex Murphy some time ago while foiling a gas station robbery. Emil, the driver of the gang's van, is apparently a gearhead because he's out riding his motorcycle and threatening to shoot the gas station clerk just for fun when the cyborg shows up to stop him. When RoboCop tells the criminal something he heard from Alex Murphy the gun-toting psycho freaks out and declares "You're dead--we killed you!" while firing his Uzi ineffectively at RoboCop. As is required in Eighties action cinema, the gas station goes up in a gargantuan fireball (and the Shell sign reads HELL as the place blows, but somehow they don't put in a closeup of that). Emil isn't dead but he's in no shape to be questioned at the end of the sequence. Oh, and the shot of the RoboCop suit striding through the flames is instantly iconic.

Emil might not able to talk, but somewhere in that titanium skull along with the remaining pieces of Alex Murphy's brain is a powerful computer. And in his right fist, RoboCop has a USB spike that he can use to interface with the mainframe in the Detroit PD records room. The criminal records have a section for "Pol Affiliation", incidentally, which means that in the future, cops are likely to keep tabs on people for hanging out with the wrong crowd. Something that I'm certain wouldn't happen now, of course. Using a frame capture from his own memory, RoboCop finds Emil Antonowsky's rap sheet and his remaining accomplices. All of the various criminals are familiar from the dream that he had earlier, but it's Clarence Boddicker that RoboCop takes the most interest in. Going through Boddicker's jacket, RoboCop finds that name that Officer Lewis mentioned before and calls up the address and info for Officer Alex J. Murphy, Deceased.

That address leads to a quiet house in a non-hellhole section of the city and RoboCop wanders inside, his digital vision fuzzing out as he remembers some of the things he saw in his home when he was still a human being and not a metal monster that got pointed at socially appropriate targets. Watch Peter Weller's body language as the emotions start to overwhelm him; his usually controlled and mechanical movements start to get more chaotic when he realizes on some level just how much he's lost with his resurrection.

And now it's time for revenge, not justice. RoboCop finds his way to one of those Eighties dance clubs with neon on the walls and everybody jammed shoulder-to-shoulder, coked up and stupid. It's one of Leon Nash's known hangouts, and Nash is in Clarence Boddicker's gang. He's less openly stupid than some of the other criminals, but still thinks it's a good idea to kick a cyborg in the crotch (there's a great hollow "bong" sound effect here). He gets dragged off by his hair for a little conversation about Boddicker's whereabouts.

Which we the viewer find out before RoboCop does--he's at Bob Morton's place, working for Dick Jones to wipe out a corporate rival. Morton goes from tough guy to sniveling coward once he's shot in the legs a few times (I would probably just wet myself and die of shock in the same circumstances, so there's that). Boddicker's brought two things to the coke-and-models party that Morton wasn't expecting other than his pistol. The first is a DVD (from 1987! This movie was eleven years ahead of its time!) where it is revealed that he's working under Dick Jones' orders. The video message is really just a way for Jones to gloat about the murder while at a safe distance and with his hands clean. Yeah, that's a Christmas present for the prosecution if it gets found, but considering the other thing Boddicker brought is a hand grenade capable of blowing up Morton's entire house I doubt it's gonna be a factor in the homicide investigation.

Boddicker's path crosses the cyborg's a little later, when the gang boss is making an offer on the output from a cocaine refinery somewhere in the Old Detroit city limits (hey, at least there's a few manufacturing jobs left in the city). Boddicker and his gang are all heavily armed, as are the coke dealers and their security goons. Which doesn't do anyone even the slightest good when RoboCop hammers down the door. The massacre here is similar to the police station scene in The Terminator, except that you're supposed to be cheering the unstoppable juggernaut as it mows down dozens of people in a firefight. And it is a thrilling sequence, to be sure. Heck, I tend to root for the robot even when it's the villain so it's nice to see just what RoboCop can do against normal opponents. If every gunfight goes like that one, it's no wonder that Morton was predicting forty days till the end of street crime in Old Detroit. It's also worth noting that RoboCop gives everyone the option to surrender before he opens fire. That third directive is "uphold the law", not "shoot first". Once it's go time, though, he is utterly implacable until only Clarence Boddicker is still on his feet. Then it's time to read the criminal his rights, punctuating each Miranda right by throwing the man through a window. After three trips through a windowpane, Boddicker says he works for Dick Jones, and should be protected from police interference. And Directive 3 won't let RoboCop crush Boddicker's trachea with one hand because Alex Murphy was a good cop and so is the thing he's been turned into.

Which means we get to see Sergeant Reed yelling at everyone back at the precinct headquarters again when RoboCop brings his captive in and says to book him as a cop killer. Then it's time to take Dick Jones into custody, who has been expecting company (he's got a little tracking device that lets him know where RoboCop is in Detroit, and that blinking dot is getting closer and closer to OCP headquarters). Once the cyborg is in his office, Jones drops two surprises on him. The first is that the secret Directive 4 is one that won't allow OCP property to act against members of the board of directors (RoboCop spasms and twitches as he tries to carry out his other directives, fighting forward towards Jones and losing in a scene that's almost as painful to watch as Murphy's execution was). The second surprise is an ED-209 unit waiting in an alcove to destroy the mechanical man.

And for all that RoboCop outclasses the usual street scum of Old Detroit, he's completely out of his league against the ED-209. There's a shot of a terrified eye staring out of the bullet hole in the visor that shows just how much of Alex Murphy's humanity has come back--machines aren't afraid to die, of course, but RoboCop is. Only a little quick thinking and a design flaw that means ED-209 and a Dalek handle stairs about equally well let RoboCop escape with his existence (the screaming-baby noise the assault robot makes while trying to get up is another one of those queasily amusing scenes that show the wit behind the carnage).

That escape goes straight into an ambush from dozens of ordinary police who have been given orders to destroy the "rampaging" police cyborg. And it's the hostage negotiator who got passed over by the camera crews who gives the order to destroy RoboCop, which some of the police refuse to do. But enough try to cut him down that it's an open question as to his survival until Officer Lewis shows up with a getaway car. Like other vigilante movies, the police force has to be shown as ineffective and corrupt (although in this case the corruption comes from the very top of the Detroit PD's command structure rather than from the street-level police or from criminals throwing bribe money around). But the city's going to hell on its own quite handily and one escaped robot isn't a huge priority with everything else going on.

But before we get to the third act there's a car commercial for the 6000 SUX and a news report that tells the audience about a gigantic wildfire that was set by a malfunctioning laser cannon on that orbiting "peace platform" mentioned all the way back in the first media break. In this film, all technology fails to work the way its users intend it to. And hey, speaking of Detroit going to hell, the police are planning to go on strike at midnight and leave Old Detroit to its own devices. Unfortunately for everyone still living there, Darkman and the Crow aren't around to team up and keep people safe so things certainly look like they're going from bad to worse. It's also something I sure didn't notice when I was twelve watching this movie for the first time, but this is the whitest Detroit imaginable. All the reporters, all the people on the street and even about ninety percent of the police and criminals are all as white as a Sarah Palin campaign rally.

While the city gets ready to burn, Clarence Boddicker pays a visit to Dick Jones at his office (janitors are busy sweeping up all the debris from the ED-209 / RoboCop fight, which is a nice touch). He gets the unenviable job of destroying RoboCop as a security risk; the cyborg's memory is admissible in court, according to Jones. Wipe his hard drive for good and all the evidence linking Jones and Boddicker together are gone. As an added incentive, Jones points out that with RoboCop gone and Delta City still planned to go, all those construction workers and all that new turf is going to wind up needing a crime lord overseeing the various types of vice and grift that will show up. Destroy the machine and you get the job, Clarence.

Meanwhile, RoboCop's trying to fix himself with the tools he's got available at that abandoned steel mill where Alex Murphy was killed. He pulls a pair of six-inch bolts out of his head to take his helmet off and reveals that there's just the skin of Alex Murphy's face stretched over the metal that makes up almost all of his head (and once the helmet comes off, the distorting effect on Peter Weller's voice isn't used any more--once you see his face again, the other signifier of Alex Murphy's humanity comes back). It's unbearably sad when you have to look into his eyes as he says he can feel his family's absence but he can't remember them.

Time passes--after night falls, crowds of looters and psychos are taking everything that isn't nailed down on a Detroit street. Emil's hanging out watching the same Benny-Hill-but-stupider sitcom that's popped up every time someone's watching TV in the movie and waiting for the rest of the Boddicker crew to get back together. Boddicker's got a "Cobra Assault Cannon" for everyone in the gang courtesy of his connections with Dick Jones, and they know where Murphy is recuperating so it's time to go there and kill him for a second time.

It must take hours for them to get from the street where Joe and Emil are busy shooting everything in sight to the steel mill, because it's morning again when the final sequence commences. RoboCop is trying to compensate for the damage to his targeting system (being shot dozens of times by a military assault droid turns out not to be good for his software); he gets himself squared away seconds before Boddicker (in his 6000 SUX) and Emil (driving the van) drop off the crew and go hunting for their quarry. The criminals are better armed but Officer Murphy is far beyond fear at this point in his second life and Joe goes down first.

Emil tries to hit Murphy with the van and winds up driving into a storage tank for toxic waste. This is another one of those sick-joke sequences, because getting exposed to hazardous chemicals or radiation is one of the standard ways superheroes get their powers (think of the Hulk and gamma radiation or Spider-Man and the genetically engineered spider that bit him). Of course, in the world of RoboCop, taking a bath in industrial waste just gives you hideous acid burns over your entire body and drives you nearly insane with agony while your flesh liquefies. A wrong turn from Boddicker's SUX takes Emil out of the game with a spray of vile-looking liquid.

It's down to Boddicker and Joe Nash at the end, with the second-in-command of the gang dropping a crane load of scrap metal on RoboCop while Clarence stalls for time. With the cyborg trapped, Boddicker tries to break something vital inside him with a sharp chunk of rebar (Nash misses this, having been on the wrong end of a Cobra Assault Cannon round courtesy of Officer Lewis). The spear in RoboCop's side is another example of the hyperviolent American-Christ imagery the movie's been using (right before the scrap metal hits him, Alex Murphy is filmed in a way that makes it look like he's walking on the water in a huge rain puddle at the steel mill; it's as if Paul Verhoeven wanted to take the mythic elements of the Christ story and recycle them in a Judge Dredd comic). Boddicker has to get right up close to use that spear, though, and that puts his jugular in range of that data spike that we saw right around the second act.

And now that Boddicker and the other criminals in his gang are out of the picture it's time for RoboCop to go to OCP headquarters and get Dick Jones (after taking out the ED-209 guarding the front door with a spare assault cannon). He makes his way into the boardroom and informs The Old Man about that fourth directive, then plays Dick Jones' computer-recorded gloating confession on the in-room video conferencing system. That gun from the disastrous ED-209 rollout is still in the board room and Jones takes the CEO hostage. But The Old Man didn't get to be head of a multinational conglomerate by being stupid or slow-witted. After he's had a gun pointed at his head he figures he can find a new second in command, and summarily fires Jones. Which means that he's no longer a member of OCP's board of directors, and that means that Directive 4 no longer applies to his situation. It's a long, long fall from the boardroom windows and Jones winds up screaming all the way down after RoboCop shoots him half a dozen times.

But that's not the denoument. That comes when the Old Man asks who that mysterious stranger who saved the day is, and the mechanical construct with a soul of a man tells him it's Murphy.

Man...some times everything just comes together to make a classic. RoboCop is unquestionably one of those times. A production plagued with problems from small (one of the skyscrapers in Dallas standing in for Future Hellhole Detroit had neon lights on the outside that were out of commission during the entire shooting schedule) to major (the RoboCop suit was so large and bulky that production was shut down for three days while Peter Weller learned to move in it) wound up making something genuinely unique--a hyperviolent action movie with the soul of a Tom Lehrer song. It's hard to call a movie with Cobra Assault Cannons in it "subtle" but there are dozens of little subtextual glimpses of the film Verhoeven knew he was making peeking out from the grotesquely violent text. There's even a director cameo in the nightclub scene when Leon gets snagged--at one point Paul Verhoeven was waving his hands around and screaming to help amp up the extras and wound up on film; the editors cut that into the sequence as a joke and it fits perfectly with the rest of the film.

Of course Criterion had to put this out--it's a thoughtful and considered film in a genre not known for either quality and it's got a script that's constructed perfectly. Every setup in the first act pays off in the third and even the three-line characters in the cop station or the board room get their moments of dignity and humanity. It's a humanist film, oddly enough, about a character who is simultaneously more and less than human.


  1. It is brilliant, I love Robocop and this post is fantastic too. Really enjoyed reading and thanks for joining us in the bloagthon!

  2. Thank you so much! The chance to use the phrase ".50 caliber vasectomy" while participating in a massive blogaround dedicated to world cinema was its own reward.

  3. You know, I have to take a fresh look at Robocop. I saw part of it years ago and didn't stick around for the rest. But I think I missed the point entirely. You've sold me on this! Where can I get a copy, stat!

    Also wanted to say I really like your writing style. This review is an extremely enjoyable read.

    Thanks for coming to the Criterion party, and for bringing Robocop with you!

  4. I don't know how long the second half of this sentence is going to be true, but there are copies of the Criterion DVD on Amazon for seventy cents and shipping. Thank you for the amazingly kind words. I'm so happy that I got to talk about a work of trashy perfection and people actually liked it.

  5. As a ginormous ROM: SPACEKNIGHT fan, I was tickled to no end that the Galadorian served as partial un-creditted inspiration for our hero. To think, Weller almost passed up the role to be in KING KONG LIVES. Great job, Tim.

  6. This blogaround got me to the 40,000th unique view on the Checkpoint as well, which has been making me smile all day. Thank you for the very kind words. Nice to know someone else knows about ROM: SPACEKNIGHT.

    Speaking of which, in case you didn't know:

  7. Excellent. Both this film and later, Verhoeven's Starship Troopers turned the sci-fi/action on its ear by working satire and parody so well into them that some fans of both don't get the better gags Verhoeven was playing so perfectly.

  8. Oh my yes. Actually, during the summer the guy who runs Cinemasochist Apocalypse wanted to do themed reviews under the "June Bugs" banner, so I wound up taking a look at STARSHIP TROOPERS as well. It was a real treat, especially since the other two killer insect movies I picked were pretty dull.

  9. Thank you for your cooperation. Good night.

  10. "50 caliber vasectomy" GIGGLE

    Idle note: My first car was a Ford Pinto. It only caught fire once while I was driving it (bad dimmer switch).

  11. I assume once was enough, Eric. I'm pretty sure I've been using the Ford Pinto as my go-to "giant corporations have no idea what they're doing" joke since the ATLAS SUCKED triple feature. Possibly even earlier than that.