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Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Retro Review: Robocop (1987)

Cast: Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Dan O'Herlihy, Kurtwood Smith, Paul McCrane, Miguel Ferrer, Ronny Cox
Genre: Cyberpunk Action 
U.S Box Office Gross: over $53 million 

Plot: In a violent, near-apocalyptic Detroit, evil corporation Omni Consumer Products (OCP) wins a contract from the city government to privatise the police force. To test their crime-eradicating cyborgs, the company leads street cop, Alex Murphy into an armed confrontation with crime lord, Boddicker, so they can use his body to support untested Robocop prototype. But when Robocop learns of the company's nefarious plans, he turns on his masters  

'Verhoeven's Greatest Ever Cinematic Achievement'

With sci-fi hits in Robocop in 1987 and Total Recall that followed 3 years later to his name, Dutchman Paul Verhoeven is one of those directors, who made a big splash on Western shores in the movie world, so much so I had high promise that his follow-up efforts would be just as good as Robocop and Total Recall - not just visually and stylistically, but content-wise and having good characterisation also. Unfortunately through Basic Instinct, Starship Troopers, Showgirls and to some extent, Hollow Man (as financially successful the former 2 movies were), his rapid descent to Hollywood success had plunged to considerably new, or be disappointingly low depths - with Showgirls as most notably the biggest stain in his career, as much as I found that film enjoyable and entertaining; and thus, it just didn't really follow suit, in the way that I and many others had hoped it would go.

Alas, as I reflect back on his American-based efforts, the only movies of his I truly ever loved of Verhoeven's was and still is the original Robocop and the Arnold Schwarzenegger- starring, Total Recall. Both movies that later got remade in the late/post- 2000s - and yet they pretty much-received derision from fans of the original movies. 

Released in the mid-1980s, it had a modest run in cinemas and almost near-perfect success in the U.S, but over time, Robocop has become an outright Verhoeven classic, - and for me personally his crowning achievement, with Total Recall coming in second.

Robocop is a film that is so revolutionary, not just through the impressive special effects, but it is a tale of what at first becomes a personal tragedy for the main hero, when he succumbs to near death at the hands of evil and vicious thugs - but also of rebirth and one of triumph as he eventually gets his revenge on them. In a patrol ambush that went badly wrong, Officer Alex Murphy is caught and fatally wounded in the process as he is shot, beaten up, dismembered and taken apart. The villains headed by Boddicker are vile, beyond mean and a truly nasty piece of work. This scene alone is squeamish and sadistic to watch and very graphic, partly comprising of Alex's left hand being blown off with a shotgun; which is not surprising given this is through Verhoeven's over-the-top, deranged and manic vision: and yet in this scene, it conveys the first stage of Alex Murphy's impending resurrection, as he is brought back to life but in the mode of a cyborg. Being now known under the moniker, Robocop, he starts to kick ass, take names and shoot bad guys, left, right and centre & goes gunning for criminal, Boddicker in vengeance. Yet he also senses that not everything is well - which Lewis herself still refers to him as Murphy, but that also though he is owned by the company, OCP and therefore their property, he senses that he has to take a stand and be his own person. 

I really enjoyed it when Lewis and Robocop together took on Boddicker and his cronies: their partnership has never been greater in this film, and yet again, this aspect wasn't appertained to in the sequels.

That is the main plot of Robocop, but there is also a complicated subplot where the Detroit police force has been sold off to a big corporation, where money is at the expense of people's livelihoods and an employee of OCP pitches his version of the Robocop programme to company executives, after robot ED209 malfunctions, goes out of control and begins killing innocent people. And with that Murphy's parts are rebuilt, he becomes Robocop overnight programmed by and under orders by OCP, with armour that can withstand the toughest of bullets and his memory is erased for good and is replaced by a set of rules that he must adhere to 1) serve the public trust, 2) protect the innocent and 3) uphold the law. 

The violence is excessive and full-on hardcore, which is also underpinned by the diffusion of this violence through the use of biting satire. The tone of the film and brutality of the scenes makes one feel and understand the psyche of the characters and their actions, rather than it becoming overly gratuitous and mean-spirited. Which was unfortunate in the follow-up. Here, that mocking tone is used to entertaining effect. 

In the Robocop character, I was cheering him on throughout this film and was happy he got his vengeance and usually, I find most of the protagonist characters in Paul Verhoeven's other movies dis-likeable and even more sinister. So, therefore, in a protagonist in Robocop, he is an all-around good guy. The visual appearance and design of Robocop is awesome to behold and through Peter Weller, he so looks the part. 

Besides the ultra-violence, one scene of drug usage, impressive special and visual effects, one other thing Robocop has going for it is its satirical social aspect that the film touches on that Verhoeven manages to convey, successfully. Particularly through its infomercials. It's amusing, makes me see the funny side to it, but also it is not completely crude or farcical. As well as interesting characterisation, the performances themselves by the actors lend credibility. They include early appearances of Paul McCrane, who later starred in the medical drama, ER and Kurtwood Smith, who went on to appear in 1989's Dead Poets Society and star of That 70s Show. You see the different types of characters and personalities, which are all not one-dimensional, but that there is depth, as well as clever and interesting storytelling. 

When The Terminator debuted in 1984, though it was a movie about a robot per se, that robot was an antagonist and arguably, we didn't really know much about that character and his origins. Robocop is another movie about a robot, but in Robocop, unlike the Terminator, he still has his emotions intact and serves to uphold the law. 

Final Verdict:

Robocop is a grown-up child fantasy come to bloody and R-rated life and the first film did everything right that the sequels & unnecessary 2014 remake decimated completely. This movie knows what it wants to be, that besides the violence, special effects, it touches upon certain things such as privatisation, identity, trust and being righteous in the face of evil, violence. 

Essentially, Robocop isn't just one of the best classic sci-fi offerings of the 1980s, but also one of the best ever sci-fi movies, without a question, with a distinct focus on characterisation, identity and touching on themes of death and resurrection. The violence, as excessive as it is, never overwhelms the story and dilutes it.

Intentional or not, as much as I am sometimes critical of Paul Verhoeven's take on sexual content and in particular with this movie, violence in his offerings, there is creativeness to it that makes it somewhat appealing. This dystopian and futuristic take on the city of Detroit is so skewed -yet violent and at times bordering out of control - and yet our hero, for all of his heroics is still figuring out who he really is, what he stands for, and his moral sense of ethics.

The only noteworthy and respectable entry of the much-maligned Robocop series & Verhoeven's movie entry to Hollywood and the world, 1987's Robocop is his finest effort as a dark, gritty, violent and bleak take on the future, starring one of the most unlikely tragi-heroes in cinematic history. 


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