Since yesterday’s Vault featured a man trapped in a robotic suit, I figured why not continue the theme with 1987’s Robocop? Directed by Paul Verhoeven from a script by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner, Robocop tells the story of Alex Murphy, a cop in future Detroit who is killed in the line of duty and resurrected as a cyborg.
Like Verhoeven’s later Starship Troopers, the film opens with satirical news reports and media clips, in which chipper TV anchors tell stories of death, tragedy and global chaos with bright smiles on their faces.
And pardon me for the brief digression (believe me, they’ll get less brief later), but I think it’s an interesting coincidence that the opening news clips feel very similar to what Frank Miller had done the year before in his graphic novel, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.
And this is significant because Frank Miller ended up being the guy who wrote the original drafts of both Robocop 2 and Robocop 3. Like I say, interesting coincidence.
Anyway, in this dystopian future Detroit (possibly the first, but far from the last movie to depict Detroit as a crime-ridden hellhole), the police force has been privatized and sold off to corporate giant Omni Consumer Products. Idealistic young cop Murphy (Peter Weller) is transferred to the most violent district in town.
We get another quick foreshadowing of Verhoeven’s future Starship Troopers when male and female cops are shown showering and dressing in the same locker room. And then Murphy meets his new partner, Ann Lewis (Nancy Allen).
She has to be shown kicking ass in this first scene, because she’ll be mostly useless for the rest of the movie. While Murphy and Lewis are driving their first patrol as partners, OCP Vice-President Dick Jones is demonstrating his new product designed to make the streets safe: a police robot named ED-209. The demonstration does not go swimmingly.
Who the hell loaded live ammo into the ED for this dog-and-pony show? Although other than that bit of plot-required stupidity, I love ED-209. I love his design, which combines attack helicopter with dinosaur, I love the way he moves side-to-side like a prowling predator, and I love the sound he makes, with basso human voice laid over a jaguar growl, all designed to make ED-209 as intimidating as possible. If only he worked.
Anyway, the big boss (Dan O’ Herlihy, whom I had last seen under layers of reptilian make-up in The Last Starfighter) puts Jones’s project on hold, giving Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer) the opportunity to pitch his rival project–Robocop. And while O’Herlihy and Ferrer are very good in their parts, the guy who really surprised me in this was Ronny Cox. Because I mainly remembered him from his starring role in the Waltons-like TV family drama Apple’s Way, seeing him here as a ruthless villain was really a jolt.
The Robocop project requires a dead (or as good as dead) cop to serve as the raw material, and right on cue, Murphy and Lewis respond to an all-units call to apprehend a gang of bank robbers. And things look pretty bad for the robbers at first, because Murphy is awesome. How awesome? This awesome.
Unfortunately for Murphy, the bad guys are this awesome.
The dude second from the left is Ray Wise, who has since become the go-to guy to make your project at least 50% cooler, just by his presence. The balding punk next to him is Paul McCrane, whom I had first seen as the sensitive gay acting student in Fame and who went on to play a memorable role as an asshole surgeon in the early seasons of E.R. And then there’s Red Forman…
Kurtwood Smith as Clarence Boddicker, who would go on to a l-o-o-o-n-g run on That 70’s Show. So yeah, Murphy’s pretty much dead.
Until he wakes up as a TV camera, seeing the world in scan lines as a team of OCP scientists puts him back together, led by this hottie.
Given how much screen time she has during this sequence, I expected her to play a more significant role in the story, but she mostly fades away after a few scenes. Which sucks, because I find her huge 80’s eyeglasses improbably attractive.
There’s a subtle homage to The Six Million Dollar Man when they mention that they were able to save the left arm (Steve Austin, the cyborg from the 70’s TV series, had bionic legs and a bionic right arm, but his left arm was his own). Bob Morton tells them to get rid of the arm. So Murphy is completely rebuilt, and soon, the cops in Murphy’s old precinct get a new addition–a huge robot who stomps through the halls like Frankenstein and has a machine pistol stashed in a special holster built into his thigh. Robocop is really well realized in this film, with an excellent suit by Rob Bottin’s crew and a really unique style of movement developed by mime coach Moni Yakin.
Robocop goes out on his first night, and we get another really subtle, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it homage to the Marvel Comics that obviously influenced the producers.
There in the foreground is an issue of Rom, Spaceknight, which is significant because he looks like this.
Notice the metallic skin and single opening for the eyes. And here’s Robocop.
The thief also grabs an issue of Iron Man and tosses it on the counter before pulling out a gun and demanding money. Robocop stops him, and then stops a rape. His next mission is to save some hostages being held by a former city employee. Robocop takes him off guard by bursting through a wall behind him.
Which, wow, seems awfully reminiscent of this scene from Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.
So anyway, the project is a success! Except for one little glitch. Robocop has a dream about Murphy’s death, and then runs into punk Emil (McCrane) on the street, which leads him to the other gang members, and finally to Boddicker. After a huge shoot-out in a drug factory, Robocop reads Boddicker his rights while throwing him through a series of plate glass windows, which, oh my God, seriously?
Given the long lead times of films, I can’t say that Robocop was definitively copying Frank Miller’s graphic novel, but given the multiple similarities and the fact that Miller was approached to write the screenplay for the sequel, it would be ludicrous to say he had no influence.
Boddicker confesses that he is in league with Dick Jones, OCP exec, but when Robocop goes to OCP to arrest Jones, he learns the nature of Directive 4, a mysterious secret bit of code in his programming. It prevents him from arresting an OCP executive. Jones then brings in an ED-209 to kill Robocop, after confessing to Bob Morton’s murder.Robocop is mostly helpless against the ED, but manages to foil it with that most insidious of weapons, a staircase.
And yes, it’s ridiculous, but I love the animation, and even more, I love the way they mix a pig’s squeals with human screams when the thing is down. Robo escapes from the SWAT team responding to the fracas at the OCP tower with Lewis’s help, and together they take refuge at the old steel mill where Murphy was killed. And Lewis gets to see Murphy’s face.
Boddicker and gang show up bearing military weapons, led there by a tracking device provided by Jones, and there’s a final showdown in which Emil is liquified by toxic waste and splattered all over Boddicker’s car, Ray Wise gets blowed up real good, and Boddicker has his throat ripped out. Verhoeven loves him some splatter.
Murphy heads back to OCP and interrupts a board meeting to accuse Dick Jones of murder, with video evidence to back it up. The Old Man fires Jones, leaving Robocop free to shoot him. And we get this odd little throwaway effects shot.
I don’t know why they didn’t just film a bluescreen of Ronny Cox instead of using this animated model. But the model clearly seems repurposed from some other project. Not only are the limbs wildly out of proportion, but the head looks grotesquely old and bald.
And this is just a guess, but I’m thinking that this model used the armature from the stop-motion demon in The Golden Child (released the year before, with stop-motion animation and demon design by Randy Dutra, who animated the ED-209). The demon was also tall and skinny, with long limbs.
Anyway, the old man asks for Robocop’s name, and he replies, “Murphy.” Humanity regained. Because you’re not really human until you’ve taken deadly revenge on an asshole. Or something.
Although I find myself generally disappointed by Verhoeven’s films, I still like this one, and I’m not sure why. Maybe just because it manages to retain some heart that the others lack. Or maybe it’s just the coolness of the supporting cast. The sequels were disappointing, and let’s not even talk about the TV series, but the original still holds up.