As I’ve noted previously, I often have mixed feelings about the movies of my youth. One of the great surprises of the past year-and-a-half has been revisiting films like The Jerk (1979) and Young Frankenstein (1974) and finding that I enjoyed them more now. So far, there haven’t been any real disappointments, but I have steered clear of John Hughes entire oeuvre. Well, except Animal House (1978), which I felt was somewhat overrated back then, and, frankly, still think so.
Robocop is a movie that I was cool enough on that I think I swayed The Flower away from seeing it. It is a classic ’80s film for both good and bad sense of the word “classic”, and I wasn’t sure that revisiting it might not highlight the worst aspects of the era. The thing about ’80s action films is that they borrowed from old-style Westerns like Shane rather than moody ’70s-style cop dramas like Serpico or The French Connection. They did that because people like old-style shoot-em-ups a lot more than morally ambiguous stuff.
This didn’t kill the “morally ambiguous action” genre, but it did bury it under mounds of box office from people who—get this—go to the movies to be entertained, not lectured to. Which, as it turns out, is most of them.
Critics still blame Lucas and Spielberg for this, though Roger Corman is at least as much to blame as anyone.
Which brings us to Robocop and director Paul Verhoeven. If there was ever a man who would land on the “morally ambiguous” side of—of, well, anything! it’d be Verhoeven. I mean, fercryinoutloud, Elle? Black Book? It was probably bad for him in the long run that he directed this movie, because it would take him down the path that would ultimately lead to Showgirls and Starship Troopers. And back to Holland, probably.
The premise of Robocop is simple and, today, would’ve been taken from a previously written comic book: Peter Weller plays Officer Murphy, a man brutally murdered when he and his partner (Nancy Allen) are ambushed by a street gang they’re hunting. This street gang working for Ronny Cox, second-in-command at the giant corporation OCP, which is privatizing the police force (and possibly every other public service) and blurring the line between domestic police force and military with the classic ED-209 “civil deterrent”. (I don’t think they call it that, but they might as well have. Complete with scare quotes.) The ED-209 doesn’t quite work out (kaff!) and one of Cox’s ambitious cocaine-sniffing, two-whores-at-a-time competitors (the late Miguel Ferrer) comes up with the more successful cyborg cop idea.
In case you were wondering, yes, this is a movie directly inspired by Blade Runner.
Also, obligatory: ’80s, amirite?
The cyborg cop (or robocop) in question is Murphy’s reanimated corpse (or perhaps he was only mostly dead?) and he sets to work cleaning up the streets. This is a bit of a problem because the biggest, most troublesome gang in Detroit is six semi-punk middle-aged men—four white, one black, one Asian (which was the ’80s concept of diversity). Seriously, though, this street gang is old. Kurtwood Smith was the leader of the pack at 44, and the movie’s a little vague as to whether this is a street gang a la West Side Story or The Godfather. I guess the idea is that, since they’re soldiers in the OCP army, that’s adequate threat enough. But I think just about any city in the country would be better off if these six guys were the worst they had to deal with.
But I digress. We’re not here for the cohesive and well-thought-out social structure, any more than we were while watching Blade Runner. (Though, since it’s a Verhoeven film, we expect—and receive!—a coed locker scene.)
So, for me, this works as Verhoeven’s best film because it has a genuine hero. Murphy is a good guy, a genuine good guy, as is Lewis (Allen). The appeal and “message” of the ’80s action film is that good guys can win. A single good guy, even, if he’s strong enough and tough enough and on and on. Maybe it’s a dumb message, but it’s one we like to hear.
This makes up for the rest of the film’s context, which is essentially a slap in America’s face. America is presumed to be stupid and greedy, as seen in the hit TV show with its stupid catchphrase, and its susceptibility to dumb advertising. (The commercials, per the credits, were directed by The Chiodo Brothers, who may have also animated the ED209, and who went on to direct the house-favorite Killer Klowns From Outer Space.) The escalation of violence feels both like exploitation and disapproval, though in fairness to Verhoeven that may be less him trying to insult the audience (or enlist them in an “in-joke”) and more to his own conflicted psyche.
You can’t talk about this movie without talking about Peter Weller, at the height of his career, who is nothing less than amazing. It’s exciting to watch him—I believe he took mime classes or something to get that “robotic” look. It’s so immersive that in one scene at the end of the movie, where he’s physically unable (by the constraints of the setting) to make his moves robotic, it’s utterly unsettling. I don’t know how a guy pulls that off when he can only act from the mouth down, but it’s a thing of beauty.
Nancy Allen was in attendance, and it’s as odd to me now as it was then that she was cast in this role, and yet she’s perfect for it. Despite a career, practically, of being a “woman in peril”, she’s somehow plausible as a tough police officer here. I mean, that’s sort of selling her other performances short, since they were tough characters, too, but they weren’t butch. She’s kind of butch here, but in that era’s way (cf. Margo Kidder in Superman) which still allowed for a woman to be feminine and “have it all”, if you will. (Allen frequently reiterated that “we shot the script,” which is a nice nod to the screenwriters, and also a probably explanation for why it isn’t completely muddled with moral ambiguity, as Troopers would be.)
Allen radiates charm and beauty in person, by the way. I’m always on the fence about the celebrity Q&As but she not only handled questions gracefully and graciously, she sparkled while doing it. I told her she should come back to talk about Blade Runner, since the theater didn’t have anyone from that film scheduled. Sometimes you can really see why people get to be “stars”.
The upshot of all this, anyway, is that Robocop is still a really, really good movie. It has a lot of iconic moments. It doesn’t waste a scene. The performers don’t waste a moment of screen time. Basil Poledorus (Conan The Barbarian) doesn’t waste a note of his musical score. The scene transitions are punctuated with the Chiodo Brothers wry commercials and stupid sitcoms. It’s a time capsule, but an effective one.
The Boy and His Girl liked it. The Flower ended up with regrets.