Robocop - Part Savage Satire. Part Explosive Exploitation. All Genius.
Robocop probably carries more pop-cultural and sociological clout now than it did back in 1987
7It is probably fair to say that we can thank the phenomenal success of The Terminator for spurring Orion Pictures into backing another grand SF/actioner built around an audacious and titular cyborg. But, even with James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s juggernaut in mind, 1987’s classic and cult-revered Robocop had a tortuous journey making it off the assembly-line and onto the streets of the crime-ridden Old Detroit, and into the consciousness of genre-fans the world-over and then stomp his way into the fantastical hall of fame in the process.
For one thing, studio executives and potential directors and stars seemed shy of the film’s very title, itself. It sounded cheesy and juvenile, ironically conjuring up images of the very comic-strip pages that undoubtedly inspired it – 2000AD – and even the cartoon Transformers. Things that, in the high-concept, bodycount-enamoured 80’s were not exactly top of the cinematic agenda. (How the world turns, eh?) Plus, there was the logistical difficulties of set design, suit construction and a huge plethora of visual effects. Finding someone to direct the intensely moralistic yet supremely satirical screenplay by Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner would prove almost as daunting a task as getting the right person to climb into the costume and still be able to properly characterise the iron fist of justice and convey a full range of emotions. Another consideration was the sky-high level of violence which, even during a period that saw Arnie and Sly routinely decimating swathes of baddies and splatter FX reaching a new plateau of grisly realism, would end up being a controversial thorn in the film’s side with the MPAA then clamping down on such escapist carnage.
But such complications would not deter Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven, whose highly stylised and graphic sensibilities as witnessed in the likes of Soldier of Orange and the Rutger Hauer medieval drama Flesh & Blood would fit Robocop’s cruel and brutal worldview to a blood-spattered tee. Better still, not only was Verhoeven quite likely to embrace and even embellish the story’s coldly dispassionate observation of man’s inhumanity towards his brother, but he would also give the concept’s dark political ironies the necessary boost and acidic bristle. Not too many American filmmakers would have been brave enough to depict their nation teetering on the brink of the capitalist abyss and positively backing such devious and corporate backstabbing and radical cost-cutting as unveiled in Old Detroit’s fiendish overlords.
But a European who had borne witness to the atrocities of war and lived through the impoverished and frequently dog-eat-dog society that slithered through the rubble in its wake was perfectly attuned to such, otherwise, delicate machinations and the concept of authoritarian manipulation. Although he, too, didn’t care much for the hokey title and refused to read the script until his own wife, who lapped it up, insisted that it went psychologically and sociologically much deeper than its moniker implied, Verhoeven soon found that Robocop would be his ultimate statement on the consumer and corporate disease that had the United States and much of the Western world in its stifling grasp.
He would go further with the archly fascistic satire of Starship Troopers, of course, but Robocop is the most immediate, deceptively astute and engrossingly accurate side-swipe at a blasé and superficial society gone terminally bad. To this end, Robocop remains his defining masterpiece and his most triumphant accusation. Yet, all the cultural and intelligent clarion-calling in the world cannot disguise the glorious fact that Robocop is, first and foremost, a giddily gory mindwarp of a thriller that is paced to perfection and as streamlined and deadly as a titanium bullet.
For Paul Verhoeven, who today still asserts he had absolutely no political agenda to enforce, the parameters of taste were stationed very much farther afield than most of his American contemporaries. Although as hard-edged and resoundingly nasty as his final cut would be, he was, at the same time, teasing the grey cells and tickling the satirical bone which allowed critics who would normally have turned their backs on such graphic material to embrace its finer themes and observations. Maybe with some reservation and reluctance, they would be amazed to discover that Verhoeven was taking the subject far more seriously than the exuberant and cartoonic bloodletting would initially lead them to suspect. Key to the differences between his brand of violence and that that usually populated American cinema was in his matter-of-fact stance of bodily destruction.
All of his action films swirl in rapture about the violent vortex of bullet-chewed bodies and flesh-imploding inter-personal mayhem. He doesn’t worry about offending audiences who haven’t seen the real effect of high velocity rounds upon vulnerable human meat, or about how they might view a hero who uses a hapless and innocent person as a human shield when there is no other alternative, as we see so sickeningly in Total Recall. His presentation of such incendiary set-pieces is both repellent and colossally entertaining … and yet there is something tangibly refreshing in this no-holds-barred approach. Thus, bodies regularly erupt in showers of gore as rounds tear them into chopped liver and shark chum, making Robocop and others of Verhoeven’s bloody oeuvre a challenge for some soft-hearted people to squirm through. Look at how he completely transformed the story of the invisible man into a sadistic stalk ‘n’ slasher in The Hollow Man.Robocop remains his defining masterpiece and his most triumphant accusationThe futuristic city of Old Detroit is blighted by the cancer of crime. In this corporate-driven society of multi-media overcrowding and imbecilic consumer indulgence, the simple ethics of live and let live, integrity and good morals have become a thing of the past. The police force is in the pocket of the sprawling Omni Consumer Products, OCP, who have nefariously grandiose plans for the former Motor City disguised as sociological reform and economic regeneration in the form of a glistening new metropolis called Delta City. But when those on its board of directors are not stabbing one another in the back for lucrative and rival police droid projects, they are actively in collusion with the city’s criminal underworld, the current kingpin of which being the highly unlikely yet viciously likeable Clarence Boddicker, an urban mercenary with lofty ambitions of his own.
“There’s a new guy in town … and his name is Robocop.”
Into this corrupt and vile environment strides Officer Alex Murphy of the Detroit Police. Idealistic, go-for-broke and totally committed to getting the job done, Murphy unwittingly becomes the perfect candidate for the new Robocop Program when he is brutally shot to bits, quite literally, and left for dead by Clarence and his scumbag gang. Barely clinging onto life, Murphy’s near-carcass is rebuilt, augmented and fortified with titanium, circuitry and robotic directives straight out of Asimov. But whilst his body is constructed to fight crime in a celebrated campaign to win votes and engender public belief and servitude towards the mighty OCP, Murphy’s memories linger and cause him pain and regret and the sorrow for a life that has been forever taken away from him. Murphy had a wife and child. Robocop has nothing but a monotone voice and a predilection for baby-food. Death would have been preferable. He exists now as metallic ghost, unable to reach out to his distraught family, trapped by duty and purpose. But as he cuts a Dirty Harry-like swathe through the city’s rawest and meanest, he begins to reform memories of his own murder and those who committed it. And in tracking them down he uncovers just how seedy and dangerous OCP really is when he finds evidence revealing how Dick Jones, who was running the parallel police robot project, is closely connected to Clarence and his private army.
Combining the no-nonsense and incorruptible stance of Judge Dredd (Rob Bottin’s early designs for the suit actually sported Dredd’s helmet) with the abject right-wing justice of Clint Eastwood’s cool San Franciscan detective and yet forging a character who is devoutly upright and forcibly steadfast in upholding the law, Robocop, perhaps inevitably, becomes the most heroic and downright human of them all … because he is a machine and a victim at the same time. Throughout the course of the film he will learn to accept his fate and only at the very end will those around him really come to understand and respect him as Officer Murphy and not simply as an unfeeling police robot. It might seem comic-book from the premise, but the key to the film’s success was in our investment of feeling and sympathy for the man inside the metal. It was obvious from the outset that it would an emotionally challenging role as well as a tremendously physical one. It would take somebody of practically angelic presence to make this resurrection work.
“Dead or alive, you are coming with me.”
Going against the conventional casting of Olympian war-gods, Verhoeven reasoned that they would need somebody skinny who could fit into the suit being designed by the gangly, apelike Bottin, rather than build the suit bigger and bigger to incorporate muscles that wouldn’t be seen anyway. The always awesome, and appropriately named Michael Ironside was measured up for the role, but proved too big for its boots. Enter the tall and gaunt Peter Weller, who had already made something of an impact in genre circles with the elaborate, scattershot SF fantasy of The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. Weller undertook months of mime training to perfect robotic movements and a stiffened performance, but found that most of this was unusable once the bulky costume was on and that he would have to adapt and modify his performance virtually from scratch. But this was no bad thing. He found, ultimately, that the character of the rebuilt, reborn Murphy only really came to life once he donned the titanium and chrome.
His brilliant walk is, at first, comical, but the more you watch how Weller perfects such an arrogant swagger the more impressively believable it becomes. Intuitively, he moves his head before his body follows-suit as he turns corners, and occasionally vice-versa, the movement becoming sinuous and fluid in spite of the metal casing and the clockwork pumping of those big arms. A birdlike swiftness and sudden halt also figures in his every gesticulation, which combines cybernetic rhythm with organic twitchiness. Impressive, too, are the bullet-spewing poses that he adopts in the midst of firefights. This also plays perfectly into the character of the former man inside the shell, a man who fancied himself as something of a showboating, gun-slinging throwback.Weller and Verhoeven also understood the power of seeing human eyes peering out of this inhuman Gort-like visor and, at crucial times, the actor’s soulful pearly blues peep out of the silver dome to add some acute poignancy and emotion to situations stabbing his reawakened soul. Caught in the headlights of a car bearing down on him, for instance, or when confronted by the rival ED-209 droid, and then the despicable Clarence in their squalid final showdown.
“You better pray that unholy monster of yours doesn’t screw up.”
Weller was also cast because of his strongly defined chin, since this was all that we would see of him for a good portion of the movie. But that chin, coupled with strangely sensitive lips would ensure that we could never forget the humanity masked by the machinery. When Robocop re-enters the now empty and for-sale family home, his half-buried memories and feelings surge up and overwhelm him. Weller acutely nails the tragedy and pathos and rage that this revelation has, his lips pursing in all-too human pain and anger yet still altered enough to have us fear his response as much as we sympathise with it.Verhoeven’s techno-tryst of satire, violence and future-spun Biblical reinvention is no less intellectually stimulatingBut the role took its toll. Poor Weller began to lose pounds sweating under the Robo-suit and threatened to jump ship. This situation got so critical that the ever-reliable and cyborg-savvy Lance Henriksen (Aliens, The Terminator) was put on standby to replace him. Henriksen, famously, tried-out for the role of the Terminator, itself, but was actually deemed too intense and too threatening after he kicked down the door to the audition room and just snarled and stared at the casting directors! Weller and Verhoeven had many arguments about how the embodiment of Robo should be achieved and the performer even lapsed into Method when he insisted that he be referred to only as either Murphy or Robocop, even when the cameras weren’t rolling.
The shooting proved very taxing for all concerned, even driving a wedge between the director and Rob Bottin, who disagreed on time constraints, logistics and last-minute changes of mind. The gruelling shoot went over schedule and over budget, the savage heat of summertime Houston completely at-odds with the supposed setting of the drizzly Detroit. But, as is so often the case with genre films, genius is born out of chaos and conflict – to wit, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. And the result of Verhoeven’s techno-tryst of satire, violence and future-spun Biblical reinvention is no less intellectually stimulating or endlessly textured than Scott’s powerful and haunting SF yarn. Every time you see it, there seems to be some new tangent explored, a fresh new layer peeled away.
“Can you fly, Bobby?”
The theme of cybernetics and their effects upon society have been plundered to the point of exhaustion, with both the literary pioneering of H. G. Wells and the cinematic trailblazing of Fritz Lang slamming in the creative plug and switching on, but Robocop was made at a time when the tech revolution was still genuinely wowing and fanning the flames of real scientific speculation. There were the Weyland Yutani synthetic people of Alien and Aliens, the Nexus-6 replicants of Blade Runner, the light-pulse gun of Looker, the brutish decimators that Skynet created in The Terminator films, the acid-injecting spider-bots and smart bullets of Runaway. High concept dreams were repeatedly being subverted into nightmares for the masses, a la War Games and Blue Thunder.
The clever thing about Neumeier’s story is that we know and trust Robocop, but we also fear him because we understand that as moralistic and upstanding as he is, he can always be reprogrammed by less scrupulous minds. In Irvin Kershner’s thoroughly entertaining sequel to Verhoeven’s ground-breaker, Robocop 2, this possibility is explored by weakening Murphy and making him into a confused and ineffectual clown, the target of public humiliation and ridicule, even by a troop of rampaging Little Leaguers. But he could so easily be turned into a weapon of mass destruction, no matter how “individual” and “human” he might be underneath all the metal and the wiring.
With a tale about a creator and a conscience-afflicted creation, Verhoeven was also riffing quite spectacularly upon the Frankenstein myth. Murphy has not been reconstituted from rifled cadavers, but he has risen from death, just the same, and must battle to regain his sense of self, clawing back his identity as opposed to the Baron’s Monster simply searching for one in a world that shuns him. But this was only small-time metaphor. Verhoeven wasn’t content to simply fall back on Mary Shelley, he would also cheekily swipe from the Greatest Story Ever Told … that of Jesus Christ. Murphy lays down his life for what he believes in and is viciously sacrificed whilst in a cruciform position. “Well, give the man a hand!” He is then reborn in the image of Man. He is hero-worshipped and then despised and cast out by his own people, ultimately sacrificed by deceivers.
When the helmet is removed, Murphy’s human face is haloed by wires and connectors, almost, if you will, like a crown of industrial thorns. Verhoeven even visually states this Messianic quality with the sight of Robocop seemingly walking on water during his sludge-pool duel with Clarence. If a little heavy-handed, this remains a boldly audacious texture in a film that is completely unafraid to juggle subtext with shameless exploitation. Indeed Verhoeven is far more enamoured and concerned with his religious bending of the genre than he is with the socio-political barbs he is casting at the same time. Blade Runner and even Star Wars had embraced the nature of the divine and the theme of the Resurrection in no less overt a fashion, but Robocop does it with its tongue in its cheek and, quite possibly, gets away with more.
But if you have Christ, then you need Pilate and Judas.
With a brilliant performance from Kurtwood Smith that walks the delinquent tightrope between being hilarious and outright bone-chillingly ruthless, Clarence becomes one of the demigods of 80’s scumbaggery. Vulgar, streetwise and yet curiously softened by a pair of spectacles, scruffy, receding, professorial hair and a meek as mice name, this is the antithesis of the bad guys that Arnie and Sly would go up against. But this is also the point. The villainy that Robocop encounters comes in the form of selfish, greedy bullies – both gangland and corporate flavours. The former has power from intimidation, whilst the latter dupes the masses in order to gain stature. Ultimately, neither cares who gets hurt in the process of their ascension. It does seem a little hard to believe that Clarence could gather up such a dichotomy of pantomimic confederates as his motley crew, yet once you hear how deceptively erudite he sounds, it is clear how they would see him as a prince among thieves.
And that’s the great thing about Smith’s portrayal. Clarence is no criminal mastermind at all. He has the contacts and the mean streak to help those with influence increase their power, the hardnosed savvy to do their dirty work for them… yet he plays bigwig when he buddies-up with the prime movers and shakers intent of reshaping the city, and they clearly tolerate him only because he can do the things they can’t get away with … quite as cleanly. He is a thug, a mercenary and a fall-guy at the same time. But he is, arguably, the Pontius Pilate. He doesn’t hide his true intentions at all. He is bad to the core, and indiscriminate. Plus he has a wacky sense of the finer things. Look how he goes for the celebrity car, himself, as a reward and how he rather ridiculously snorts a rival mobster’s red wine in a mockery of status.
Clarence’s playful predilection for violence (“Ooh, guns, guns, guns!”) reveals the depths of his psychosis, but you have to admire his sense of humour too. Smith delivers the almost perfect order of “Bitches leave!” when he gate-crashes rival Robo-creator Bob Morton’s saucy shindig and orders the two coke-snorting floozies to make themselves scarce, and it has become something of a classic in its own right. His deadpan issuing of the command actually implies a queer indication of his own sexuality, his abject dismissal of females. Whether you choose to believe it or not, there is an ambiguity deliberately set up around this facet of Clarence’s personality, further complicated when he appears to be chatting-up Dick Jones’ secretary (actually played by Smith’s own wife). For me, this element is out-of-character, romantically speaking, and should be seen as just another example of his mocking bullyboy tactics.a boldly audacious texture in a film that is completely unafraid to juggle subtext with shameless exploitationOf note in his roster of thugs is Ray Wise as Leon Nash. A darling of B-movie excess and TV’s Twin Peaks, Wise’s 80’s natty clubber doesn’t seem to belong in the gang. But, like Clarence himself, he probably fits simply because he is so outrageously out of place. Next memorable would have to be the Tintin-faced Emil, played by Paul McCrane. Again, this social misfit who thinks nothing of inflicting horrendous violence with casual indifference, is a quirkily likeable personality. His abundant joy at the new toys Clarence brings for the gang (heavy military ordnance in order to take out the bullet-proof Robocop – but actually prop-shop augmented sniper rifles) is queasily endearing. He tries one out and blows a car to smithereens – “I LIKE it!” he declares. The first of the clan to meet the revamped Murphy and also to instinctively put two and two together and realise just who is lurking beneath the metal mask, Emil is still marvellously laidback and off-the-cuff. This rug-pulling attitude of Clarence and his dragoons continually wrong-foots the audience. We have witnessed them commit one of the most shockingly callous of murders and yet it is impossible not to be taken in by their carefree attitude.
“I’m cashing you OUT, Bob.”
The Judas in this power-play is, of course, Dick Jones, played by the always terrific Ronny (Deliverance) Cox. A corporate slime-ball and a bogus brownnoser who is taking the company and the city for a ride, playing sides and eternally corrupting Detroit and, if he gets his way, Delta City, whilst pretending to be the very saviour everyone craves. Cox had already appeared in a great many genre films, from The Car to The Beast Within, but had tended to play sympathetic roles of grassroots folk. Here was his opportunity to portray a boo-hissable rogue, and he took to it with apparent relish. His smugness in front of his CEO is ass-kissing of the highest order, but his behind-the-boardroom shock tactics are just as cruel and ruthless as Clarence’s out on the streets.
That the two should be partners-in-crime is no major surprise, but Cox displays such repugnant arrogance that it is equally unsurprising that he would go on to play the volatile and merciless dictator of Mars, Cohagen, in Verhoeven’s hugely entertaining Total Recall. Callous and condescending, Jones is the Achilles Heel to the future prospects of Detroit, the virus in the machine. Cox does a splendid job of badgering Robocop when he comes to arrest him, knowing full well that he has already programmed the hidden Directive 4 into his governing chip that means Murphy cannot apprehend a high ranking member of OCP. This casual enjoyment of another’s suffering – as Robocop struggles against his own inner workings - is something that Cox would hone to an amusingly squirm-inducing degree, those down-on-the-farm eyes developing a vicious glint of imperiousness.
Bob Morton is played by another familiar face from the decade, in Miguel (son of Mel) Ferrer. Being the stereotypical yuppie that bankrolled the Robocop project in the first instance, we are placed in a weird position of semi-siding with him, although we know what an avaricious snake in the grass he can be. When it comes down to it, he is no more a friend to the revamped Officer Murphy than Clarence Boddicker, or the conniving Dick Jones. Indeed, Verhoeven’s film presents us with few genuinely decent souls. Morton’s early confrontation with Jones in the Men’s Room is a perfect blend of office farce and cutting personality clash, with Jones bizarrely caressing the yuppie’s hair before wrenching his head back by the follicles to issue his stark warning about treading on the wrong toes. Their final clash is coldly presented as the bullet-crippled Morton begs for his life from a video-recording of a gloating Jones before Clarence’s grenade (making the same ticking-clock noise that he did before blowing off Murphy’s hand) blows him and his luxury pad to the high heavens.
“Murphy, I’m a mess …”
“They’ll fix you. They fix everything.”
Nancy Allen was a darling of genre cinema from the 70’s and throughout the 80’s. Cute and curvy and always oozing a mischievous sex appeal that rarely made you totally trust her, she brings zeal and energy to Officer Anne Lewis, the only person that Murphy can rely upon. She knows that this robotic behemoth is her former partner, the cop she saw being so nastily executed by Clarence and his goons yet was powerless to help. With those lustrous trademark locks cut short into a workmanlike style that is all the better to fit into those riot helmets, Verhoeven made certain that the alluring Allen would not be considered as a love interest for Murphy. Or Robo, for that matter.
He didn’t want the cutthroat dynamics of the tale to become sodden with unnecessary and unlikely romance. Early script ideas of an affair between the two were instantly and thankfully cast adrift, and Allen was essentially defeminised, even told to eat more and more so as to pad out those curves with beefy masculinity. I certainly wouldn’t argue that her performance radically alters the accepted form of the screen heroine as many admirers are wont to claim. Our first encounter with her sees her battering a crim resisting arrest with the type of brutality that wouldn’t seem out of place in a cage-fight. Plus, she suffers a fair bit in the course of performing her duty alongside Robocop.Verhoeven accurately asserting that being even more shockingly violent than audiences would scarcely dare believe would make the satiric payoff all the more amusingTerrific makeup FX from Bottin, the master of latex contortions, flesh out the visceral dynamics of Robocop’s war against crime. The boardroom demonstration with the ED-209, in which the unfortunate guinea-pig, Mr. Kinney (Kevin Page) is literally blown to slivers of bloody splatter is gorgeously over the top, Verhoeven accurately asserting that being even more shockingly violent than audiences would scarcely dare believe would make the satiric payoff all the more amusing. And in the renowned Director’s Cut, this intestinal redecoration of the high-rise office suite goes on for longer still. The crucial but cruel murder sequence of our hero is justifiably notorious too. Clarence’s wicked humiliation of the stricken Murphy – the vocal mimicking of a crescendoing alarm as he chooses which bit of the cop to blow off first still shocks as much as it amuses – and the laughter and mocking that his cronies issue as their prey becomes little more than offal for shotgun practice can’t fail to leave a nasty taste in the mouth.
Bottin expertly blows chunks of Murphy away in welters of grue, sparing us no detail in his bodily disintegration. Bloody squibs regularly erupt with ferocious splattery gusto and there is also the deliciously shuddery treat of seeing Emil going all squishy after being engulfed in a vat of toxic waste (there’s always one of those lurking in the shadows, isn’t there?) and then getting splattered all over the bonnet of Clarence’s ill-gotten super-car, the much cherished 6000 SUX. Kudos must go to the memorably creepy shot of the dilapidated and steaming Emil lurching out into the vehicle’s path. And also to the impromptu use of Robo’s download spike as a jugular-severing weapon. Sadly, Robocop came at a time when Rob Bottin was finding Hollywood a turmoil of egos and creative confrontations that would, ultimately, lead to his own self-imposed exile from the industry that made his name. CG be damned … we still await his great prosthetic comeback.
The use of stop-motion animation is a pure delight in a film positing the potential of future technology. The ED-209 is like a pulverising fusion of a killer whale and the gun-pods of an Apache attack helicopter, and brought to Harryhausen-esque life by Phil Tippett. Yes, the integration of the riot-droid and the live action footage is a little ropey when viewed in terms of the CG augmentation that we have now but, just like those skeletons in Jason and the Argonauts, there is an undeniable charm to go alongside the creation’s undoubtedly intimidating demeanour as it stomps through foreground plates towards retreating humans who look as though they are draped in fog. Tippett would also contribute the comically snazzy little touches like the metal toe of an ED-209 that Robo has blown in half waggling in pathetic death-throes, and the spectacularly amusing plunge that one takes down a flight of stairs after a couple of tentative foot-probings of the thin air above the top step. Its frustrated baby whine and furiously ineffectual kicking when it cannot get up is the icing on the cake.
“Dick … YOU’RE FIRED!”
If only Lord Sugar would adopt such explosive strategies when dispatching his hopeless hopefuls on TV’s The Apprentice, eh?
Sadly, there is one visual effect that I really wish they would take the time to makeover. I think you can probably tell what it is. Yep … when Robo blasts Dick Jones out of the window of the OCP boardroom and he plummets many, many floors to his death, poor Ronny Cox seems to have sprouted enormous Mr. Tickle arms and hands during his descent. Purists may love this … but I have found it acutely embarrassing since I saw the film on its initial theatrical run and it is something well worth doctoring. I mean, “they fix everything,” remember?
Infomercials and satiric ads abound. From the hollering, sweat-popping guffaws of the “I’ll buy that for a dollar!” man to the round-table game of nuclear Armageddon for all the family, Nukem, the wolves are out for the consumer market. But it is also the newscasts that mark Verhoeven’s anarchic stamp on this skewed worldview – something that would then crop up in Tim Burton’s Batman, The Simpsons and Family Guy.The best of these just has to revolve around the reporting of the strategic defence peace platform, which foreshadows the destruction of Buenos Ares in Starship Troopers when it accidentally fires its orbital laser canons and incinerates two former US presidents who have retired to Santa Barbara alongside an entire neighbourhood – the simply beautiful gag being that this a “peace” platform equipped with genocidal weapon technology.
I have reviewed Basil Poledouris’ score already for Intrada’s tremendous CD release, but we cannot discuss the glory of Robocop without spending some more time reflecting on the phenomenal contribution that his mighty and emotional music makes. The late great Poledouris would work with the director again on Starship Troopers, delivering a fantastic score of soaring excitement and militaristic Sturm und Drang. Hearing the two scores back to back makes for a fascinating double-act but whilst his work for Verhoeven is pounding and exhilarating, it is somewhat unfortunate that he also provided the music for the stunted and reviled Robocop 3, in which Robert John Burke took on the mantle of the heroic cyborg with a desultory, insipid and watered-down scarcity of returns from director Fred Dekker. Here, his pounding anvil main theme stirs and gleams with heraldic verve, really coming into its stride when Robocop launches his assault on the drug den Rock Shop. And the soul-wrenching and inexorable churning as Robo fights against his implanted Directive 4 becomes a roiling passage of inner turmoil and metallic angst.But it is also the newscasts that mark Verhoeven’s anarchic stamp on this skewed worldviewRobocop 2 … or how I learned to stop worrying and love sequels.
With the first film being all about rebirth and rejuvenation, nobody raised an eyebrow when the character and the scenario was greenlit for a follow-up. But in a critical broadside, the film was utterly ridiculed upon release and openly scorned. Yet given how sequels tend to shape out, it is a shining example of how they should actually be done, and it is still incredibly refreshing to revisit Irvin Kershner’s sensational ante-upping follow-up of 1990’s Robocop 2. Brilliantly retaining the social satire of commercial gullibility and corporate skulduggery, this Frank Miller derived (but extensively rewritten by Walon Green) actioner brings more comic-book bedlam to Murphy’s crusade with another bigger, more aggressive cyborg for him to do battle with in the deliriously cruel and cunningly monikered Robocop 2, a metal monster with twin arm canons, a penchant for spine snapping and the deviant mind of nutcase renegade incarcerated within its toughened hide.
The crime-rate in Detroit has gone up as a fantastic opening sequence that pans along a neon and grime street disturbingly shows – almost everyone we encounter is a mugger, a rapist or a thug, the population seemingly caught up in a ceaseless food-chain of escalating evil. The police are on strike and OCP is still struggling with droids to rival or better Robocop. The montage of video clips showcasing each new model’s disastrous and usually murderous malfunctions is hilarious, with top points awarded to the daft looking thing that just screams and then tears its own head off. Going in-tandem with this splatstick-slapstick, Murphy’s memories of his former life have taken deeper root and he has begun to stalk his wife with a longing and a pain that he can barely comprehend, thus the film is able, at least partially, to maintain the balance between the gory excesses and the heart and soul that Verhoeven developed. Although it quickly and rather too glibly wraps-up this conflict of emotions plot point, Kershner’s film at least had the dignity to address this moral/heartfelt dilemma without just forgetting that it ever existed and having Robocop commence this adventure as being in full acceptance of his condition. Something many other directors would have found far easier to do.
I love how Daniel O’ Herlihy’s OCP honcho – only ever known as “the old man” - is now revealed to be much more of a sleazebag than initially portrayed. His “disappointment” at the OTT slaying of the unfortunate Mr. Kinney and his recognition of Murphy’s value always seemed to place him just on the right side of the moral divide. Here, his motivations and his tactics are much less condonable, his stance now exposed as leaning rather heftily in favour of the corporate fat cat, with little compassion for the underling. O’ Herlihy clearly loved his albeit small role in the first film and really savours his increased screen-time here, regaining that wicked warlock twinkle in the eyes that he sported so well in Halloween III: Season of the Witch.
The eccentric Tom Noonan (Wolfen, Manhunter, Monster Squad) is cleverly pitched as a cultural revolutionary-cum-spiritual leader called Cain who just happens to be the overlord of a huge gang producing a dangerously addictive new drug, called Nuke, that is overwhelming the Detroit detritus in the shadow of the developing Delta City. Yet as memorable as he is in either his human or his mechanoid incarnations, it is perhaps his potty-mouthed juvenile subordinate, Hob, who steals the show. I know many viewers despise this antagonistic brat implicitly – I did, too, when I first saw the film – but Gabriel Damon, who plays him, provides the film with a horribly delinquent edge that, nowadays, actually doesn’t appear all that outrageous or unlikely. A nice touch comes when Cain has on-the-take Officer Duffy (Stephen Lee) butchered for giving away the gang’s whereabouts to Robocop and forces the kid, who has already proved how violent and handy with an automatic weapon he is, to watch his impromptu disembowelling. Poor Officer Duffy has a terrible time all round, actually.
The violence is ramped-up and the action set-pieces considerably more elaborate with massacres, car chases, Robo riding a motorcycle and playing chicken with a truck and a terrific, cityblock-levelling skirmish between him and the sadistic, and far larger Robo-Cain. There is even a wildly amusing image of Cain’s disembodied brain and eyeballs being kept alive in a vat of chemicals. Superbly, this ramshackle assemblage of the cerebral remnants of a human being is permitted to see its own former face being bandied-around by OCP doctors. When activated and unleashed, this metal beast has a screen that presents us with a computerised rendition of Cain’s visage. Its smile is devoutly sinister, especially when accompanied by a deep electronic growl of purely unsavoury intent.
The overall tone of the sequel is that of an enthusiastic and overbearing younger brother – eager to copy its more popular sibling and always attempting to go one better. It feels louder and more boisterous, consequently less in-control. The narrative thrust can be wayward at times, but with so much going on and such a plethora of incidents, this is only of small concern. Typically, for a sequel, the stakes must be higher, the death toll greater and the explosions bigger. It pretty much succeeds on all these counts, and has a great deal of fun too.I'd buy that for a dollar!
A surprising face amongst the crowd comes with former Coronation Street beefcake Chris Quinten (he played one of Gail Platt’s many doomed paramours, Brian Tilsley) as he sought to make the big break from UK soapland to Hollywood. With one line and still sporting his blonde perm, his Tinseltown hopes soar and are dashed in a blink-of-an-eye role as a reporter out for a scoop on the metallic behemoths striding through town. He was never seen again, although he did marry the luscious blonde Leeza Gibbons, who also appears in the film … and they remained together for a while, at least. Not a bad pay-off, actually.
Despite being too often neglected, Leonard Rosenman’s score is a very good one. It contains all of his trademark action flurries and idiosyncratic orchestration, though it inevitably pales when compared to the might and majesty that Poledouris delivered. Played more as a straight action piece, there is nevertheless much to savour with its continual bombast and somewhat simpler heroic themes.
“Thank you for not smoking.”
It is true that some great ideas rattle along and are then simply dropped – Murphy and his pining for his wife, Robo’s reprogramming – and this leads to the film becoming cheerfully episodic and certainly more whistle-stop in its approach, but this also smacks of Kershner being rather too ambitious which, given the themes that definitely work, seems only too appropriate. Critics still hated the film and fans didn’t seem to give it a break either, possibly because they were still reeling from the Stephen Hopkins follow-up to Predator. It was cited as being too violent and gratuitous which, taking the bloody baton from Verhoeven, seems like a totally misguided and unwarranted complaint. Quite what did people expect from a bigger budgeted Robocop movie? Yet, this said, most people I talk to about Robocop seem to enjoy its brother-in-arms almost as much as I do. With the original gaining its new 4K remastering and release on features-packed Blu-ray, it would be wise to return to Kershner’s take because it actually does very little wrong and quite skilfully retains the elements that made Verhoeven’s film the classic it is regarded as today.Incidentally, I really like Predator 2, as well … although Danny Glover is a terrible substitute for Arnie in the heroic department.
One thing that everyone agrees on is that Dekker’s Robocop 3 is a pitiful waste of time. I have already said more about it than it actually deserves, so let’s move swiftly along.
With such popularity, there is no surprise that the imagination-grabbing concept of Robocop would lead to sequels, comic-book and TV spin-offs and the modern cinematic scourge of the reboot.
In short … don’t.Well, it had to happen, didn’t it? Bloody Hollywood piddles on the parade of another cult gem and seminal genre classic. Now, at the time of writing, I haven’t seen Jose Padihla’s polished, slickened, toned-down and sanitised PG13 retake … and, you know what, I have absolutely no intention of doing so, either. Looking like Streethawk clashed with a noir-draped incarnation of TV’s The Stig, this “upgrade” is a total clunker. Early footage breaks the iconic image of the original and the much-ballyhooed geopolitical evolution of the scenario and the character is loathsome and patronising. Drones be damned. Just leave our Robocop alone!
No, folks … I wouldn’t buy that … not even for a dollar.
You want the real deal? It comes courtesy of Verhoeven and Kershner. Two outstanding heavy metal future shocks packed with more flair, imagination, uber-violence and genuine emotion than any pulp SF action-adventures really ought to have. Plus, even without trying to enforce modern twists upon the concept, the very idea of a robotised, dehumanised lawman bringing immediate and raw justice to the streets has only become even more prescient and relevant to today’s world. The vision of a corporate-led, consumer-driven and media-saturated society has also come to pass.
Robocop probably carries more pop-cultural and sociological clout now than it did back in 1987.
It remains a masterpiece.
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