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RoboCop: Retrospective – Part 1: Your Move, Creep

When Robocop roared into theaters in the summer of 1987, the habit of making movies that contemplated the possibility of robots acting or looking like humans was far from novel. Fritz Lang’s legendary science-fiction drama of social unrest, Metropolis, was among the very first films to broach the notion. Its famous robot would go on to influence George Lucas’s magnificent creation C-3PO in Star Wars. Before then came Gort in The Day the Earth Stood Still, B-9 in the television series Lost in Space, and, only a short few years prior to Verhoeven’s picture, The Terminator. People’s fascination with a robot simulating human intelligence had obviously been fervent for some time already, with the possibilities, both benevolent and malevolent, explored numerous times on screen.

Robocop would end up being a different beast altogether, its iconic status lasting to this very day, its influence spreading across an entire trilogy of films, multiple graphic novel ventures, an animated series, a couple of live-action television series’, and a remake in 2014. As is so often the case in film, the brainchild of the project was that of a few people.  In the mid-1980s writers Ed Neumeier (as a former studio executive at Universal, someone that certainly understood the business of filmmaking) and Michael Milner had, unbeknownst to each other, started working on extraordinarily similar concepts of a man involved in law enforcement somehow physically and mentally enhanced by robotics. The two were introduced and collaborated on the original script. Selling it was another matter altogether, as multiple studios balked at the idea of producing a film with a title as silly as Robocop. Luckily Orion, a more independent minded studio that had earned critical and awards success but was experiencing financially troubled waters, took a chance on the project.  Finding a director was no easy task either, with even Paul Verheoven himself disliking the idea at first. It was only after taking a swim in the Mediterranean at Cannes that his wife, who read the script in his absence, convinced him that Robocop offered more potential than met the eye. The rest, as they say, is history.

As the film celebrates its 30th anniversary this year and as its immediate sequels receive recent blu-ray collector’s edition treatment from the fine folks at Scream Factory, the time is ripe to reminisce about this famous, and infamous, property.

Prime Directive 1: Read Robocop review

Prime Directive 2: Read Robocop 2 review

Prime Directive 3: Read Robocop 3 review

Prime Directive 4: Read Robocop (2014) review

Prime Directive 5: No abuse, physical or verbal, may be done to the author of these reviews.


RoboCop (1987)

Set in Detroit at an undefined year in the near future, the film reveals that the once proud Motor City is anything but: devoid of its once economically influential status, and gentrification spreading its nefarious wings across the metropolis (a sadly prescient theory). OCP, or Omni Consumer Products, a major name in technologically advanced security apparatuses among many other things, is steadfast on its two most recent, bold projects. On the one hand is the fancifully baptized Delta City, a utopian restructuring and refurbishing of one of Detroit’s slums into a modern, sleek, hip neighborhood. The other: a new robotized law enforcement product to assist the undermanned Detroit policy department, recently privatized in a merger with OCP.

Company execs and bitter rivals Dick Jones (Ronny Cox) and Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer) are both at each other’s neck trying to earn the blessings of OCP’s ‘Old Man’ (Dan O’Herlihy) and get more funding to put their robo-police projects into full force. Jones’ ED-209 proves disastrous at a exec meeting, opening the doors wide open for Morton, whose eventual knight in shining armor, literally, is a young transferee, officer Alex Murphy (Peter Weller). Partnered with officer Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen), the two patrol the streets one day when they are called into action against the city’s most notorious psychopathic gangster, Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith) and his cronies. Their intervention proves calamitous, for as Lewis lays unconscious after taking a nasty fall, Murphy is almost literally blown to bits by shotgun fire before receiving a final bullet to the brain. Rushed to a ultra-specialized operation center under the auspices of OCP and the conniving Bob Morton, Alex Murphy is transformed, physically and mentally, into RoboCop: more machine than man…or is he? As his investigation of Clarence Boddicker heats up, RoboCop begins to remember who he was, complicating things not only for himself, but also OCP.

Paul Verheoven’s 1987 RoboCop is regularly heralded as an action movie and science-fiction classic. For those that can stomach solid amounts of extremely graphic violence and some vitriolic, vulgar humor, it is hard to argue against that claim. The reasons for its high pedestal in cinema history are many and have been espoused by more than a few film critics and amateurs alike. For one, the movie is maddeningly difficult to classify into a clearly defined category. This ends up being much to the film’s benefit because it means that it accomplishes a great many aspirations. It is definitely an action movie. It is also certainly a science-fiction movie. It is replete with hysterical lines of dialogue, therefore making it something of a comedy. It also takes sharp aim at the venture capitalist, right-wing socio-political culture that permeated in several Western countries in the 1980s, chief among them the United States (a highlight being the in-movie, fictitious television advertisements for completely bonkers products). For that matter, said culture still dominates today, making RoboCop much more timeless than often described, despite that some of its qualities are firmly rooted in the 1980s.

Among many of its wonderful aspects are the multifaceted villains, their sense of organization and the tools at their disposal. Consider that the eponymous protagonist is, in essence, the product of two risible, shamelessly career-oriented executives, Dick Jones and Bob Morton, and their game of professional one-upmanship. Both want to be the person that provides Detroit with its robotic protector, albeit for self-centered reasons far removed from any notions of altruism. The execs meeting involving Dick Jones’ ED-209 (‘ED’ standing for Enforcement Droid) is rather telling. When one of the sorry saps present is rendered into mincemeat by the demonstration droid gone totally haywire, Jones claims the issue as no more than a glitch. Even the Old Man seems more concerned about how much they’ve invested in the destructive beast than the fact that one of their own has just been annihilated. It’s a brief but memorable scene that speaks volumes about the sort of environment in which these people operate. While it is for all intents and purposes an exaggerated depiction of real world business, there are real stories that erupt in the news that reveal the perverse mentality with which some companies go about perfecting their products.

Speaking of the ED-209, it is unquestionably one of the picture’s great marvels. Realized under the wonderful guidance of special effects guru Phil Tippett, the machine, simultaneously hilarious for its clumsiness and terrifying for its capacity for brutish violence, is a wonder to behold, even by today’s standards. Visual effects have come a long way, yet the ED-209 still feels like it carries significant weight and is expertly designed. In some ways, it is rather sad and ironic that RoboCop be gifted with such a marvelous supporting villain. It was only a few years later in 1991’s T2: Judgement Day, that computer generated imagery would take movie effects to new heights. As such, the ED-209 was one of the last of its kind. What a way to go out.

Of course, this is RoboCop’s movie, and far be it for the antagonists to overshadow him. Weller was given no easy task, having to emote, as best he could, under massive amounts of costuming. Not helping matters in the slightest was the fact that Rob Bottin’s team of makeup and costume artists only provided the finished product two weeks into shooting (the filmmakers had a trying time honing their ideas about what RoboCop should look like). Weller, to his credit, infuses the titular character with sufficient pathos, in particular during the final third when his human mind has begun feeding him memories of the life he used to have. Anchoring matters further is Nancy Allen, putting in fine work as Murphy’s partner, officer Lewis, who keeps tagging along, partly out of friendship and, one could deduce, out of responsibility for what happened to Murphy under her watch that resulted in his hideous transformation. They aren’t an obvious pairing, but it works well, much like everything else in the film.

In a nutshell, RoboCop is awesome. What’s more, it’s also somewhat petrifying when considering that, from a socio-economic standpoint, Western society still functions much as it did in the 1980s. The film is a piece of fiction but also alarmingly astute in its commentary, adeptly relishing and criticizing the very things it depicts, from the violence to the business politics. A much earned tip of the hat to director Verheoven and company for a job bloody well done. Bloody indeed.


RoboCop 2 (1990)

Despite the important financial success of the original RoboCop, studio Orion was still swimming in the red. Desperate times call for not-so desperate measures in the filmmaking business, which essentially translates to a demand for a sequel to a popular film. Little did Orion know that the road leading to RoboCop 2 would be much more difficult than they bargained for.

Ed Neumeier and Michael Milner, the first film’s screenwriters, were initially called back into service. Their concept to advance the story is the stuff of legend, what with RoboCop falling in love with a sort of neuro-computer operated by OCP but powered by the brain of a young woman. Comments from those that read the script suggest the picture was heading towards bold new territory whilst adhering to its immediate predecessor’s cynical tone. Whether for good or ill, Neumeier and Milner’s script never got made, as Orion needed the film to start production as quickly as possible, in addition to a writer’s strike looming large. Without any professional scribes available, comic book writer legend Frank Miller was hired for re-writes, a brilliant mind with absolutely no filmmaking experience. Irvin Kershner, probably best known for his glorious efforts on The Empire Strikes Back, was eventually signed to direct, but not before a falling out between the studio and previous candidate Tim Hunter. To top it off, the studio’s worst nightmare: a ballooning production budget of $35 million, 3 times that of the first film’s $12 million price tag. Uh-oh.

RoboCop 2 sees the android officer Murphy (Weller again) patrolling the streets with officer Lewis (Nancy Allen, returning as well), as they seek to smash a drug dealing operation run by the nefarious Cain (Tom Noonan). Cain’s business has seen a new product, Nuke, hit Detroit like wildfire. In fact, despite Robocop’s presence and his success in the first movie, Detroit looks to be in an even more perilous position this time around, with hooligans running wild left and right, even children, such as one of Cain’s partners, a very young buck named Hob (Gabriel Damon). Meanwhile, at OCP, the Old Man (Daniel O’Herlihy) has a new, ambitious scientific mind leading the charge for a new Robocop, the calculating Juliette Faxx (Belinda Bauer). Following some early failed test runs that employed the remnants of the minds of ‘normal’ people, Faxx proposes to insert the brain of a psychopath into a robot, a psychopath that would nevertheless be subservient to the desire for Nuke. Opportunity knocks when non other than Cain apparently bites the dust in a pursuit against RoboCop. RoboCop 2 (a clever, self-referential name) is locked and loaded, but ferociously unstable.

The second installment has been the brunt of a notoriously poor reputation. Is it warranted? In part, yes, but only in part. There are discernible cracks in the armor this time around, no pun intended. Arguably, the fact that Frank Miller, an artist that has justifiably been showered with praise for his efforts in the realm of comic books, lacked filmic experience is cause for concern. It is true that the first film juggled a lot of material, both with regards to plot and theme, yet somehow pulled through in the end. Robocop 2, unfortunately, is less adept at juggling its multiple plot points and ideas. Characters that seem to be of critical importance in the early stages are whisked away by the midpoint without having really contributed to the plot much (unlike Bob Morton in the original movie), most notably young Hob. Another subplot hinted at and forsaken just as quickly is Murphy’s interest in rekindling some form of relationship with his wife. Nothing comes of this.

Additionally, while it’s safe to say that the RoboCop universe is on the whacky side of the spectrum, there are some elements to the second feature that smack of lazy, misguided storytelling choices. It isn’t very clear why Faxx believes the best candidate to plug into RoboCop 2 should be a psychopath. There is a brief allusion to the fact that Murphy’s successful integration into the original RoboCop had to due with the fact that he was an honest, down to earth, straight shooter: family man, Christian, etc. Fair enough, but accepting that reality, are there literally no other individuals like that in Detroit? It seems silly, which is saying a lot considering these are freaking RoboCop movies being dissected. Bluntly, RoboCop 2 is a bit messy with regards to plotting and script. ‘Unfocused’ might be a more appropriate term, but that is generally the risk incurred when a film production is rushed and also experiences problems beyond its control such as a writer’s strike.

While the film does have it faults, there are still some good reasons to take a chance on it. For one, Weller is evidently comfortable in the titular role, putting in excellent work as a person literally living inside a machine. Despite speaking with the monotonous tone of a robot, his lines are more human this time around. His inflection subtly reminds the audience and the characters around him that there is still something human existing in his metallic, cold, silver body. Weirdly, Gabriel Damon is appropriately insane as Hob. This is an unabashedly delirious role given the character’s youth, yet strangely magnetic just the same. Perhaps it is the shock value alone of witnessing a pre-teen boy spewing profanity like it was nobody’s business and trying to kill cops that make it compelling. In any case, Damon is surprisingly ‘good’ in the role.

With a higher budget, bigger action and special effects tend to follow suit, and in those respects Kershner and his team deliver. The sequence in which Cain, newly reborn as RoboCop 2, storms into a clandestine business meeting between Hob and Detroit’s mayor (Willard Pugh) is genuinely creepy, in addition to being wonderfully violent. The fate suffered by Cain’s former flame Angie (Galyn Görg) is very much in line with the sort of violence the first two films are known for. The climactic battle between Murphy and Cain, which begins inside of one of Delta City’s towers, then in the elevator shaft, then on its roof, then underground, and finally at street level, is awesome. Big, bold, unapologetically brutal, it is, in part at least, what people pay for when they see a RoboCop film.

RoboCop 2 does not reach the same heights as its predecessor. That alone should not be sufficient reason to shun it. It looks really, really cool, Peter Weller is once again excellent in the lead role, Hob is a fascinating villain for the right and wrong reasons, and the action is top notch.

Unfortunately for Orion, the film only took in $46 million at the box office against the aforementioned $35 million budget. Orion knew it needed another hit, but some tinkering would have to be done going forward.

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