Robocop is one of a select group of action movies I watched far too many times during my teenage years. One can over-indulge in the good things, and pallor can be lost through over-familiarity. It’s certainly the case that Paul Verhoeven’s US breakthrough wears its limited resources on its battered metal-plated chest and, in its “Director’s Cut” form at least, occasionally over-indulges his enthusiastic lack of restraint. Yet its shortcomings are minor ones. It remains stylistically impressive and thematically as a sharp as a whistle. This year’s remake may have megabucks and slickness on its side but there is no vision, either in the writing or direction. The lack of focus kills any chance of longevity. Verhoeven knows exactly the film he’s making, moulded to fit his idiosyncratic foibles. It might not be his best executed, but in terms of substance, as he recognises, it is assuredly his best US movie. Alas, given the way he’s been unceremoniously ditched by Hollywood, it looks to remain that way.
The crassness of the title, which everyone thought was terrible, the stuff of a bad kids’ show (or even a cartoon, which it dutifully became), carries a different aspect once you’ve seen the picture. It reflects the hollow consumerist sensibility of OCP, the corporation behind the cyborg. Even the lettering, designed as a “cool” robotic logo shouts that this is going to be an empty, precision-engineered action spectacle, one with about as much depth as, say, the same year’s Predator (which is not disdain that movie; it’s a phenomenal piece of filmmaking). Because so much time and money has been spent on the Rob Bottin-designed suit (who found the entire experience a nightmare), intentionally made to look like a stylish piece of hardware from a city intrinsically linked to the manufacture and design of automobiles, it’s the surface elements that seduce the viewer initially. Yet this is far from another Dirty Harry “getting even with the scum” even though it consciously flirts with such themes (and also draws on ideas of the purer notion traditional Old West lawman, as seen through Murphy’s gunslinging TJ Lazer).
Harry Callahan has precious little humanity anyway; he’s a cold-hearted loner on a mission to right society’s wrongs, holding up a mirror to those he hunts down. Peter Weller’s Alex Murphy is a loving family man thrust onto the mean streets (“You work for a living down here, Murphy” he is told by Robert DoQui’s desk sergeant). There’s a suggestion that Murphy, with his nice suburban home, is a bit above all the district’s blue collar, down-and-dirty policing. He’s pampered so he’s punished for it. Verhoeven and writers Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner are keen to flirt with ideals of traditional heroism and the gulf between this and (Verhoeven’s heightened) reality. So Murphy’s son hero worships him as a TV cop (“Can you do that, dad?” he asks of Lazer’s gunslinging) but an actual altercation bears no resemblance to a standoff between storybook heroes and villains.
If Harry breaks the rules, Robocop abides by them with clinical brutality. As a result, he becomes a blend of post-70s jaundice with decaying societal values and the morally clear attitudes of the classical sheriff. While this theme links in with the broader satirical bent of the writers, it isn’t the character’s focus or that of the movie as a whole. That’s found in the man/machine divide.
The obvious template for the rebuilt man goes back to Frankenstein’s monster, although Verhoeven’s aesthetic guide was Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (and Gort in The Day the Earth Stood Still). This is a tale of (re-) discovering the humanity within, another stage in the exploration of the place of the soul in the artificial construct (most thematically strong early the same decade in Blade Runner). At a 2012 (25th anniversary) reunion Weller set out precisely this view, even if he was perhaps over-effusive. Verhoeven cut his paean to the soul down in its tracks by stating he didn’t believe in any such thing, but later gave some ground when he admitted that, in the context of the movie and Murphy, he did believe.
It’s this element where the reboot fundamentally differs, and as a result where all its problems lie. Robocop 2014 finds it necessary to bring to life a fully self-aware Murphy. This is not in itself a bad idea, but it’s one that causes a fumbling of any attempt at a narrative arc. As a result, there comes a point where nu-Murphy must have his humanity unceremoniously switched off and then regain it. It’s a clumsy decision, as is giving time and emphasis to Murphy’s family life (off-screen here) or found in glimpsed remembrances (“I really have to tell you something… I love you,” states Mrs Murphy). Verhoeven has referred to the scene of Robocop’s return to his family home as the one that convinced him of the value of the picture, and he judges it remarkably. It’s allowed to build as a mini-narrative, culminating in Murphy’s enraged destruction of the automated estate agent (“Hey! Have you thought it all over? Why not make me an offer?”; the writers’ prediction of the demise of the real estate agent has proved premature). The only way to deal with the loss of the fairy tale life of Murphy (it’s the only aspect of the movie that isn’t grim and austere, industrial and urban) is through violence. The smash-cut to a frenzied club scene, as Murphy begins his hunt for those who killed him is the perfection of editing through contrast.
Verhoeven and his writers absolutely understand the existential chaos of Murphy’s decimated form (as has been noted, his face has been grafted onto a shell, it isn’t even his real head) and that if you dwell on it too much the whole yarn will start to unravel. Their genius is treading that fine line (“I can feel them, but I can’t remember them. Leave me alone”; it’s a haunting, poetic surmise).
The reboot, both bravely and foolishly, chooses to dive headlong in the visceral horror of Murphy’s limbless, sexless remains and then unsurprisingly finds its retreat into something more crowd-pleasing hampered. That picture, as a 15/PG-13, is unable to reach its desired dark destination in exploring a man who is no longer a man. Verhoeven, so excessive in other respects, uses symbolism and imagery more affectingly to say the same thing.
So Murphy turns down the baby food Lewis (Nancy Allen) brings him (“No, thank you. I’m not hungry”); there can be no babies for him. Or them; Verhoeven initially wanted a relationship between the two cops, then went the other way, cutting Allen’s hair and asking her to gain wait to defuse any suggestion of sexual tension. Although, as we shall see, his choices lead to other readings. Robocop’s montage patrol, as he takes out the trash, is the broadest nod of the movie to Dirty Harry, and the second call finds him dealing with an attempted rape. As much as the director embraces the Harry-esque quips (“Your move, creep”), shooting the knife-wielding rapist in the genitals serves not only as a audience-pleasing “gag”, but a statement on Murphy’s own loss. The follow-up to this, as the machine deals unempathically with the victim, advising impassively that she has suffered a trauma and he will call a rape crisis centre, is acute in the minimal but effective way it informs us of his new state.
Even when he has regained awareness of his past, Murphy can only deal with it in the third person (“Murphy had a wife and son. What happened to them?”) He recognises the disconnect with what he has become. This is why, despite a seemingly sequel-worthy premise, a follow-up just doesn’t work unless you suck out all the character and emotional content. He must become an empty joker or law monger who studiously refuses to broach his barren lot. Robocop 2 attempted to deal with the repercussions of the loss of Murphy’s family, and credit for being willing, but it failed to do so in any meaningful way (arguably, this informed the reboot as much as the original movie). In this regard, Robocop’s only bum move comes during the salutatory final moments. The Old Man congratulates Robocop (“Nice shooting son. What’s your name?”) The cyborg smiles and replies “Murphy”. It’s an easy catharsis; slaying those who put him in this state brings peace of mind and contentment, and it absolutely makes sense in terms of the path of the movie. But it makes no sense for Murphy five minutes after the credits roll and the euphoria wears off.
Verhoeven has frequently waxed lyrical about his Christ obsession, and how he saw the film as “Satan kills Jesus”. He wanted the act to be so horrific it informs everything Murphy does later. And this approach absolutely works. Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith) and his gang are inhumanity personified, cracking jokes as they torture and destroy their victim (“Well, give the man a hand!”) That said, much as I enjoy the director’s penchant for excess in many cases, I think his more-is-more doesn’t always result in the most effective scene. When he talks about “burlesque or grotesque” in reference to the extremes of violence, where a scene teeters into the absurd, it can succeed hands-down; the opening ED209 slaughter of Mr Kenny, for example (“Somebody want to call a goddam paramedic?”). There, the line, following the unending barrage of gunfire, is a brilliant sick joke. Less so with Murphy’s death. I don’t think the unexcised version is superior to the MPAA-enforced edit. It may satisfy the gore hounds, but it stretches the scene too far into the unbelievable, both in effects (blowing Murphy’s arm off makes him look more like a marionette) and the suspension of disbelief that he wouldn’t be dead on hitting the ground. It’s only Weller’s profoundly affecting, terrifyingly pulverised performance that keeps the scene grounded. Sometimes less is more.
As the director says, you cannot have resurrection until you have crucifixion (and so he lovingly shows Murphy, arms/arm outstretched having his chest blown to shreds). How far does the Christ metaphor extend? Well, not far beyond that one scene really. As Biblical metaphors go, the Murphy-Lewis relationship might be seen to provide more material. Murphy is Adam, the first (new) man, and Lewis is Eve. And Clarence is the limb-eliminating serpent. It’s Lewis who “calls it” (sending them to the Old Mill, where Murphy loses his innocence); as Eve, she tempts Adam from the straight path. And the weakness of woman seals Murphy’s fate/fall. She is distracted by the ways of the flesh; namely Joe’s unzipped johnson. As a result, he is left with no back up.
Murphy’s rude awakening outside of Eden is pleasure-free. He initially rejects her overtures (“It’s really good to see you Murphy”; he’s not hungry) but ultimately, he must accept the existence she has introduced (“Aim for me” he invites, as his targeting system is a little messed up). Some speculated that Lewis would become a female “Bride of Robocop” in the first sequel (“They’ll fix you. They’ll fix everything” does invite such a take), but its enough that she is the only one who is allowed to understand him, as the co-architect of his demise.
Robocop’s moral path isn’t especially messianic either. One view in the retrospective documentary suggested the movie is “fascism for liberals” and with highly refined commercial impulses it has little interest in espousing lofty ideals. But this is a picture all about catharsis. We don’t want Murphy to hold off from killing Clarence (“Yes, I am a cop” he submits, taking Boddicker in for questioning rather than finishing him off in the drug den). It’s the machine part that keeps him on the straight-and-narrow, rather than following his newfound Callahan instincts. This is the same part that allows him to retreat into the job (“Excuse me, I have to go somewhere there is a crime happening” he changes the conversation when Lewis first recognises him as Murphy; the picture wastes no time with her realisation – it is lean and precise with its plot beats). Again, the reboot makes a hash of this, denying Murphy the triumph of release. But he never really has sufficient motivation in the first place; the makers scuppered it when they simply blew him up.
This sense of identity as it relates to ethics and morality is as resonant in respect of Robocop’s status as a commodity (and a best-selling toy, kids!) If some of the telegraphing of plot points is on the crude side (the classified Directive 4 is immediately there on his LED), it’s a clever touch to turn the one thing that fulfils him into a corrupting influence; the “Product Violation” that takes effect when Robocop attempts to apprehend an OCP employee. Murphy/Robocop is no bastion of purity but he is moral and ethical in comparison to those around him, and that is enough. It isn’t just in terms of the soul within that Verhoeven illustrates this. He is careful to build the blocks from the first moment Murphy is visualised as a (quite brilliantly designed; it’s still a fantastic piece of point-of-view work) sporadically woken cadaver
The casual discarding of the last vestiges of Murphy’s body is as brutal in its own way as the treatment he receives from Bodicker’s gang. Indeed, the symmetry is callously upfront (“Lose the arm”). There’s no consideration of sanctity of the body. Murphy is a slab of meat that signed a release form. He is owned. Verhoeven portrays the icy horror of this in a wholly different way to the previous scene, but the effect is the same. No one cares; not the criminals; not the suits (the remake, with its saved arm, wife signing the release and constant blood transfusions, opens up a can of worms that mitigates against the indulgence in cheap thrills).
Yet the process is enthralling too; the ellipses in consciousness. He’s a part of the furniture, unmoving while office parties and fine-tuning take place. Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer) is infused with ambivalence towards Murphy; ruthless ambition presides. All he can see are dollar signs, and we’re dragged along with his enthusiasm (“You’re a gonna be a bad motherfucker!”). Rob Bottin’s design for Robocop is as iconic in its way as Giger’s alien. And in both cases, the more it is subsequently messed with the less effective it becomes. Verhoeven is evidently one to recognise where he has gone astray, in retrospect at least, as he credits Bottin with being wholly correct in his instincts, and in his advice concerning how to introduce the cyborg. Through glimpses, points of view, frosted glass, reaction shots and fantastic sound design; the footfalls, the electronic hum. The effect fosters anticipation, but once we see the beast it’s down to the director and cinematographer Jost Vacano to make him a marvel, shooting at low angles to impress upon us his size and power, and shining up his chrome to suggest an off-the-production line prototype.
But the lion’s share of the credit surely goes to Weller who, on discovering the best-laid plans for his performance in complete disarray when he put on the suit, devised a new approach in concert with mime artist Moni Yakim. Movements became slower and more bird like. Sure, some shots are only the clunky side and expose the limitations of time and money. But the director’s next project, the much, much costlier Total Recall, is much bigger victim of failed staging. There are some quite beautifully executed sequences in Robocop; the raid on the drug den as Murphy smoothly wastes a small army and the coke flies liberally; Robocop escaping under fire from his fellow officers (like a less hirsute Serpico) as he successively plummets multiple levels of a car park; and his struggle to escape, one hand pulling him across the concrete as he is strafed by gunfire, is stunning. And this is, of course, is the point where his humanity properly begins to flow back through; the break in his visor exposes an eye, the window to the soul. The impervious becomes vulnerable.
There’s a clutch of unfettered attacks on the surrounding mores in movies of this period. Oliver Stone’s Wall Street is the most famous, and also perhaps the most stolid and humourless. Cameron’s Aliens, in thrall to the military machine, reserves its real venom for the suit Burke; the company man who fucks over his fellows for a lousy dollar. Cameron and Stone are a subtle as a pair of bricks, and come across that way because they lack wit. The reason Robocop stands the test of time so well is that it has a surfeit of the same; it isn’t just a flash-in-the-pan either, as Neumeier and Miner bring the same askew view to their fascism satire Starship Troopers (it’s a shame these guys have become pretty much two-trick ponies, associated with very little outside of these franchises).
There may be more self-consciousness about the broadcasting of corporate greed today, but Robocop’s portrait of a privatised world is incrementally tumbling towards unsullied fact. Want to get the super cop programme running, or put ED209s on the streets? No problem, “We run local law enforcement”. Want some serious firepower? “We practically are the military.” Blackwater, anyone?
If something doesn’t sell, rebrand it (Old Detroit becomes Delta City). If in doubt, speak in sound bites (the Old Man’s utterance that “Old Detroit has a cancer. The cancer is crime” may as well come from a political speechwriter; and forget about Bob Morton’s drug habit, Dan O’Herlihy is sniffing very suspiciously when we first see him; of course, he is, he has to keep up with his juniors, especially the ones who are seniors). The Old Man is nominally a “good guy” here (“I think it’s time we gave something back”), but only very relative terms to the nefariousness of Dick Jones and others beneath him. One of the few things Robocop 2 gets right is showing him to be as overtly amoral as the rest.
Of course, even Morton looks nice next to Dick Jones (Ronny Cox). Verhoeven seems to have cast his movie with an effortless sureness of touch. From top to tail its stuffed full of great performances, even in relatively minor roles. The writers have provided great characters and dialogue, of course, such that even a hostage situation finds the negotiator and captor spouting memorable lines (“What about cruise control?” Michael Gregory’s Lieutenant Hedgecock offers the hostage taker). Robocop sits comfortable next to Die Hard in not putting a foot wrong with every supporting character. Like Die Hard, the subplots are as effective as the main event. The sudden discovery of Cox’s villainous side (he’s just been playing nice guy Bogomil in Beverly Hills Cop movies, remember) is already passé by the time he’s cast to now type in Total Recall. There is a palpable fear and bladder weakness in the scene where Jones confronts a not-so-cocky-now Morton in the gents (Verhoeven loves his piss, shit and blood).
The dog-eat-dog mentality (“He’s old, we’re young. That’s life”) is exemplified by Morton leaping in when Cox’s baby makes a mess of a colleague (“You just fucked with the wrong guy” rages Jones, making it sound like Mamet). In a fraction of the screen time to Oliver Stone, Robocop tells you all you need to know about “Greed is good”, and manages not to be a downer about it. Ferrer has his greatest success just around the corner (Albert in Twin Peaks) but this ranks as his big break, and it’s likely to remain the movie role for which he’s best remembered; he makes such an impression I always forget that he is written out relatively early on. And let’s not forget “yes man” Johnson (Felton Perry), the kind of guy who manages to be inoffensive enough to survive the boardroom bloodshed (and not one but two sequels).
Verhoeven’s casting flair ensures that you could imagine at least a couple of the members of Bodicker’s gang swapping places in with the executives. Certainly, Kurtwood Smith is far from your typical casting for a heavy (Verhoeven, always one for Nazi metaphors rubbing up against his Jesus fixation, saw similarities with Heinrich Himmler in Boddicker’s bespectacled intellect). Clarence announces his grim sense of humour from the off, casually discarding one of his cohorts with a quip (“Can you fly, Bobby?”) and taking a vile pleasure in his cruel acts; Verhoeven really does bring the Satanic fire to his behaviour. He is so casual and assumptive of his power; the suits mean nothing to him (“Bitches leave” he instructs the prostitutes attending to Bob Morton; “You going to call me?” one asks as she heads for the door). Having shot up Morton’s legs and left him with a pinless grenade, Clarence goes to the trouble of shutting the door after him; it’s a lovely touch. Perhaps he was raised in a nice home.
He is all set to administer the same punishment to Dick Jones until the latter uses the only tool in his arsenal for an untameable force like Boddicker; greed (“One man could control it all” he promises of the ripe to be sullied Delta City). He is only given pause by the unstoppable force of Robocop, appealing to the ethics he lacks (ultimately this doesn’t work; “I’m not arresting you any more” gifts Murphy his Dirty Harry moment as we get behind him killing the bad guy, beyond the bounds of law), but he quickly reverts to type on being taken into custody (“Just give me my fucking phone call” Clarence says, dismissing the whole legal system as he spits blood on the duty desk). A couple of years later, Smith would be playing roles more tailored to his look; the distant father (Dead Poets Society) and Federation President (Star Trek VI). Like Ferrer, this remains his signature role.
Ray Wise, managed to eclipse Leon Nash in as Leland Palmer in Twin Peaks (David Lynch was a Robocop fan, do you think?), and you could easily imagine Wise at OCP. His part is more sticks in the mind for the performance more than the writing, but the scene at the club, where Robocop knocks Leon’s gun away (into the hand of a clubber who just carries on dancing; perhaps the best visual gag in the movie), Leon hurts his foot on Robo’s metal groin and is then dragged out by his hair, is a marvellous. Paul McCrane’s Emile stint on ER is his biggest claim to fame, the title role in The X-Files’ Leonard Betts aside, but he takes the ickiest prosthetic bath of a mainstream movie to that point this side of The Thing when, in best Looney Tunes style he drives headlong in to a tank bearing the warning “Toxic Waste”. And then then oncoming Clarence decapitates him. Lovely stuff, but that’s what comes of mocking preppy college kids trying to pay their way in dead end jobs (“I bet you think you’re pretty smart, huh? Think you could outsmart a bullet?”)
It’s the satirical bite that really makes Robocop the movie it is, however. Starship Troopers is as versatile in that regard, but (by virtue of its mission statement) it cant compete on the character front; the whole point of that movie is you can’t care about its vacuous junior fascists, which makes it a clever movie, but not one that provides an emotional connection. It feels as if there is more reportage in Robocop than there actually is. It is essentially there to break up the acts and provide handy exposition. Because it has the virtue of verisimilitude, it can get away with far more on-the-nose imparting of information than would be seen in anything approximating real news programming. A news report sets up Dick Jones as the villain in obvious fashion and then makes the Clarence Bodicker connection with him in the same report. There’s also the keen insight into the commercialisation of Robocop through loving sound bites (“There’s a new guy in town. His name’s Robocop” overtly makes him an Old West sheriff, and then there are the press calls; “Kids Stay out of trouble”); the only director in the US at this time brimming with as much joyous cynicism was Joe Dante.
The future vision of world events is pleasingly off-beam. The nuclear threat remains large (like it ever went away, it just shifted focus) but dislocated to South Africa with a “French made neutron bomb” and misfiring Star Wars weaponry slaying two former US presidents. This atomic peril extends to the amusing array of adverts, with a board game called Nuke’Em (“Pakistan is threatening my border”) from (ahem) Butler Brothers. Other memorable commercials include a dinosaur selling the 600SUX (“An American tradition”) and the rather chucklesome “Series 7 Sports Heart by Jensen” (“You pick the heart! You pick the credit. And remember, we care!”) The writers even cunningly create their own zeitgeist, with characters repeating lines from ads and TV (“I’d buy that for a dollar”, TJ Lazer) that in turn have a whole afterlife with the movie’s fans.
Verhoeven has admitted he just got lucky assembling the team he did; he didn’t know who to go to in Hollywood, but every element – from effects, to sound, to production design, to music – proves to be the perfect complement. Phil Tippet’s stop motion ED209 is a fantastic piece of design work, a tank with a touch of Jedi’s scout walker. The seams are never less than obvious in the integrated elements, but the superlative sound design, muscular and threatening, papers over the joins. And the weird humanising touches add to the effect; the humorous sight of an ED thrashing about on a set of stairs, unable to upright itself, plaintively crying out baby noises. Elsewhere the cost limitations are also evident; the TV news showing the outcome of the siege evidences the hostage taker thrown from an “upper floor” onto a waiting crash mat, while Dick Jones’ unfortunately long arms as he plunges from the board room don’t have any of the craft of Hans Gruber’s plummet in the following year’s Die Hard. But that’s the difference time and budget can bring, and there’s a makeshift charm to Robocop’s grungy can-do attitude.
Also not to be underestimated is the impact of Basil Pouledouris’ superb score. Pouledouris was a veteran of Verhoeven’s first English language film Flesh+Blood, and would work with him a third time on Starship Troopers. The strident march of the Robo-theme, the aggressive thunder of ED209. Pouledouris combines synths and orchestra to singular effect. And in the subtle moments there is also melancholy (Robo’s visit home) and tantalising glimpses of unremembered past (his encounter with Emile at the gas station). He’d return to Robo for the justly unloved Robocop 3, and the theme would be referenced again in this year’s reboot. Weirdly, Leonard Rosenman overtly criticised Pouledouris’ theme when he came to score Robocop 2. Weirdly, because Rosenman’s score is quite appalling, complete with a choir operatically bleating, “Ro-bo-cop” over the end credits.
Anyone can see why Robocop became a franchise; it is chock full of iconic designs, scenes and characters. Yet the warning comes in that last scene, where it finds itself in a slight fluff; not knowing quite where to go and opting for uplift that shouldn’t really be there. As such this is a better satire than it is a character piece, and a better popcorn flick than it is a philosophical rumination, for all its cleverness and insight. Like Dirty Harry, its definite cultural forbear, Robocop should never have continued beyond the first. This is because it has nowhere to go, either stuck chasing its tail or unsuccessfully attempting to broaden its hero’s range and then having to give up. In addition, this is a picture very much of its era, not that it’s dated particularly in terms of targets or designs (only in terms of effects, really). Its sharpness comes from knowing its targets, taking aim and successfully hitting them. Robocop 2014 arrives in a world of indifference and apathy, so the result struggles for impact. If Verhoeven had left Hollywood to take regular gigs back home, his departure from Hollywood might have been a fair trade. But one feature since Hollow Man (great as Black Book is) is no justice. He deserves to get at least a few more pictures under his belt; he has too much personality and style to be left out in the cold.