The Sunday Film Review/ Classic: Robocop 1987
Director: Paul Verhoeven (1987)
When I was but a wee one attending a primary school yet to be pillaged of hope and fairness by a hate filled yet well-spoken man named Michael Gove, I somehow ended up on a school trip to Granada Studios. I’m not sure exactly what the perceived educational value of such a trip was and in fact if I didn’t know better, I’d say the whole thing was for the sole benefit of Ms Ellis. Ms Ellis was a rather rotund and forceful teacher who regularly smoked in class, once replaced an entire compilation of my year four work on the wall with a poster of Mike Reid and used Coronation Street storylines to explain Egyptian mythology……………… she was also, I have to say, a bloody good teacher, but then again this was at a time when good teachers were celebrated rather than sent to Siberia because they’d focused on developing a student’s personality instead of worrying if they were on course for a B grade G.C.S.E in English in six years’ time, the evil soulless fucks.
I remember two things from my trip to Granada Studios.
One: at the behest of Ms Ellis we toured the Coronation Street set not once, not twice but thrice.
Two: The Robocop ride.
Holy shit that Robocop ride. Actually ride might be a bit of a stretch, it was a first-person perspective film you watched from the vantage point of chairs that leaned left and right to follow the action, still it blew tiny pre-teen me’s mind. Till that point the concept of ‘excitement’ began and finished with The Mighty Morphing Power Rangers, now here was this thing, this crazy experience with flying motorbikes, laser guns, police radios, explosions and awesome narration by Robocop himself.
Amazed, I returned home determined to find out more about this wonderful mechanical man, soon I had a small collection of toys and eventually the Robocop versus Terminator Sega Mega Drive game. By the point I found that game my alcoholic grandfather had snuck me into a life changing Terminator 2 showing, so while my memories a bit hazy, I’m pretty sure the discovery of my two favourite metallic monsters teaming up in a game was something akin to my first orgasm. I still hadn’t seen any of the Robocop films yet, the first two were 18’s, while Robocop 3 was a solid 12 (this was back in the day before the board of classification decided Lord of the Ring’s film profits were more important than children’s emotional development and changed 12 to 12A) and my cool parents, while liberal in many ways, were sticklers for the age ratings…………….. especially after what came to be known as Terminator and James Bond Tomorrow Never Dies gate.
It wasn’t until midway through my teens I actually made the effort to watch any of the films, when I did circumstance dictated it was the second instalment I saw first. I remember feeling nostalgic seeing Robocop on screen but apart from that I really didn’t get into Robocop 2 all that much. As a result I actually turned down the chance to watch the first Robocop in order to go see James Bond Die Another Day at the Odeon cinema. If I ever perfect the ability of journeying through time and space that’s one of the first mistakes I’m correcting, because fuck Die Another Day, fuck it in it’s terrible theme, ice hotel bullshit and fuck Madonna for not being able to act, oh my non-existent god no, fencing scene flashbacks.
Eventually I did see the original 1987 Robocop film……..……..it’s no exaggeration to say I’ve watched it every year since. I quote from it any chance I get (‘bitches leave’ works quite well), I whistle the theme tune and whenever I see Peter Weller on screen I grab the closest person, to me, friend or stranger, doesn’t matter which, and yell ‘that’s Robocop’ right in their stupid fat face. The first Robocop is a classic, an epic, absolutely brilliant classic, I’ll explain why……. after the plot summary.
Alex Murphy (he of the piercing blue eyes Peter Weller) is a veteran police officer just transferred to a downtown Detroit precinct……… he’s also one unlucky son of a gun. Sadly for Murphy, Detroit is a city gone bankrupt………. Wait, is this still the plot summary and not real life right?………… Sorry where was I? Oh yeah, Detroit is bankrupt and probably as a result suffering from a mass outbreak of crime. Police officers are gunned down daily and the city in its desperation has sold its police force to ‘mega-corporation’ Omni Consumer Products (O.C.P). The head of O.C.P. ‘The Old Man’ (Daniel O’Herlihy) however isn’t as interested in restoring law and order as he is with demolishing the whole city and creating a new one, imaginatively named Delta City. But you know what they say, crime does not investors attract, so O.C.P., in an effort to find investment for Delta City, experiments with using robots to fight crime.
Step forward Senior President Dick Jones (A wonderful Ronny Cox) and his walking death tank concept the ED 209.
Sadly the ED 209 proves a little too good at the ‘death’ bit so an alternative project is proposed by boardroom up-and-comer Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer joint tied for my favourite performance), a project that just requires a suitable test subject.
MEANWHILE: The unlucky Officer Murphy and his partner Officer Lewis (Nancy Allen a refreshingly strong female character) have tracked down a group of bank robbers headed by the sadistic Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith a.k.a the dad in That 70’s show, the other performance tied for my choice as favourite). Being police officers and not mathematicians, Murphy and Lewis ignore the fact they are two against a heavily armed gang and storm the robber’s hideout. The result is Murphy being murdered in a brutal scene that still holds up today.
Turns out the terms of OCP’s contract with the city is monumentally one sided to the point where dead police officers count as OCP property, rather than say that of their nearest surviving relatives, and so instead of a funeral, Murphy is rebuilt as ROBOCOP, a walking talking cybernetic android ready to clear the streets of crime, protect the innocent and slowly rediscover his humanity.
Plot summary ends.
There’re so many things about Robocop that I think make it a classic that the prospect of writing about them has me salivating, this is one of those films that I probably love more than my youngest brother.
I’ll start with a topic close to the hearts of a million teenagers………………… violence.
There’s a risk factor in admitting you like violent films; tell the wrong person you enjoy them and soon as there’s another kidnapping, murder, mass murder or gang attack for the news to blame on violent films/games (because societal pressures and mental well-being be damned), the person you confessed your taste for violence to will ostracise you like you’re a leper with a picture of Jimmy Saville tattooed on your forehead. The other challenge is trying to explain exactly why you find you derive pleasure from violent films without sounding psychotic or like your fetish is mutilation………….. step forward Robocop.
Robocop is a sublime example of how to incorporate violence into a film. The trick is making sure a violent moment fits the story and doesn’t just happen for the sake of happening. Early on in Robocop we’re treated to an OCP board meeting. A meeting abruptly ended by a robotic malfunction resulting in a board member being ripped apart by machine gun bullets. It’s a barbaric and extremely violent scene often edited down in televised broadcasts. It’s also a great moment of storytelling, well not the shooting exactly, but the fallout. The various reactions to the shooting tell you all you need to know about the characters at OCP; The Old Man angrily admonishes his second in command Dick Jones for the potential loss of money, while in the background the less important board members scream and recoil in terror. Then Bob Morton uses the malfunction as a way to propose the Robocop programme, and the very next shot is Bob walking downstairs teasing his assistant for feeling bad about their friends death by declaring ‘that’s business’.
By having the various OCP characters react like that we see just what massive jerks they are. OCP comes off as a heartless company run by old white men only concerned about a colleague’s death because it might affect their profits (I possibly work for a crappy supermarket with similar ‘values’) but the importance of life isn’t played down, the weeping terrified lesser board members show the loss of life has an impact, and exasperate how heartless The Old Man, Dick Jones and Bob Morton seem. That’s violence done properly, and not just thrown in because the makers saw the first SAW film and decided to get themselves some of that ‘torture porn’. It’s there because it serves the story and develops characters.
Story is one Robocops strongest points. Murphy becoming Robocop may be the plot the DVD box blurb tries to sell the film with, but there’s actually a remarkable amount of detailed and fleshed out side stories. The opening is a televised news show followed by and adverts that give you a feel of how dark, repressive and sleazy the American dream has turned Detroit. Then as the film progresses there are all these little things going on; the OCP boardroom feud between Dick Jones and Bob Morton, the Clarence Boddicker gang making a drug deal, The Police pushed to the point of considering strike action, a councillor desperate enough to take hostages, and more. These moments combine and flesh out Detroit to the point where the story becomes as much about the city, as it does Murphy and his technimetal dream coat…………… yes I’m using the phrase technimetal dream coat, get over it.
Robocop manages to incorporate these different stories without losing pace or focus precisely because it’s such a slick, well told story. It’s impressive how little screen time gets wasted, admittedly there’s a shoot-out where mostly nameless thugs get gunned down that lasts a little too long, but that’s the exception to prove the rule. Every scene in Robocop is focused on building a grander narrative, if you’ll excuse me the toss-potty film terminology. Some of the guys in The Clarence Boddicker gang are larger than life; I’m able to state that because the actors were given the screen time to show that. The little stories involving the OCP guys or The Clarence Boddicker gang mean that when Robocop gets thrown into the mix, we know exactly who everyone is, who outranks who, and why characters react in the way they do. It’s a film with strong story telling focused on character., backed up by a ton of great performances, Weller is as good as I’ve seen him, Ronny Cox shines and there are some endearing contributions by Paul McCrane and Leon ‘Twin peaks baby’ Nash as two of Boddicker’s henchmen.
Now here’s the other thing I think makes Robocop a classic, it represents a higher calibre of film. Let’s be honest, a lot of films are dumb, especially in the action genre, big explosions and set pieces can be treated as replacements for character development or challenging the audience (step forward Rise of the Planet of the Apes). Robocop is a film that took the high ground, the story has substance, the characters are rounded and developed, the message is complex and mutli-layered; humanity v.s. machine is only one part of it. The fake news reports and adverts provide a social commentary that still holds relevance today, there’s a real discussion about authoritarian rule and more generally Robocop as a film aims to be more than simple popcorn blockbuster. There’s a heart and soul here, down mostly I think to Verhoeven’s direction and vision (he would go on to achieve similar things in the action genre with Total Recall and Starship Troopers).
Classic or not, it’s hard to deny Robocop is a good film. There’s a powerful Basil Poledouris score that should have a place on any good Ipod, an entertaining array of scenes ranging from an action ‘thug gets beaten up’ to a comedic ‘wide eyed cops stare in wonder at metal cop’ and a fast paced story with an exciting conclusion. With a couple of modelling exceptions the effects stand up to today and probably most importantly, it’s not a film that takes itself too seriously.
Any faults, flaws, criticisms? Yeah a few but I’m really scraping the barrel with them, the ending is incredibly brief and a little unsatisfying, and there are some flashbacks to Murphy’s family that are a bit cringeworthy. There’s also a slightly lazy attempted rape scene, though at the same time Robocop does acknowledge the emotional shock an attempted rape has on the victim, so it’s still more honest than 99% of lazy attempted rape scenes out there. Oh and also one of my friends feels there’s far too much muzzle flash whenever Robocop shoots his gun ……………. Yup scraping the barrel.
So here then is why I think Robocop is a classic: it’s just such a damn entertaining film. Well told, well made and intelligent, it can be held up as a demonstration of how violence can be handled in a film without diminishing the story and it treats the audience with respect.
REMAKE: Oh the remake. Well the first trailer looked abysmal but before I gouged my eyes out the second trailer came out and that one actually looked watchable. Either way it’ll be nice to see Michael Keaton on screen before he returns to slumbering underground for another decade.
Written by Sam ‘My Year 5 teacher used to throw chalk at us’ McKinstrie
Unnecessarily on twitter as McKinstHFP
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