Crime Classic: Paul Verhoeven's RoboCop
We're holding a free screening of a crime classic of your choice next week. Here's a closer look at another option: the original RoboCop...
On the 5th June, we're holding a free crime classic cinema screening to celebrate the launch of the videogame Murdered: Soul Suspect. You can find out details of the screening, and how you can vote for the film you most want to see, here.
For now, here's our look back at the first of the films you can choose from: Paul Verhoeven's 1987 classic, RoboCop.
NB: The following contains mild spoilers.
There are many reasons why RoboCop endures as one of the best films of the 1980s, but one of them stands out from the rest: it’s so many things at once. It’s a sharp corporate satire. It’s a violent action movie. It’s a pitch-black comedy. It’s a science fiction film about mortality and technology. But as well as all that, it’s a classic crime film.
Idealistic young cop Alex Murphy (Peter Weller), having just reported for duty in crime-ridden Detroit city, is brutally tortured and murdered by a gang led by the sociopathic Clarence Bodicker (Kurtwood Smith). What’s left of Murphy’s body is seized by the Omni Corporation, where it’s used as the basis for a new brand of potentially lucrative cybernetic law enforcement: RoboCop.
When Murphy first awakens, he has no memory of who he was or what had happened to him. He’s simply aware of his prime directives: serve the public trust, protect the innocent, uphold the law. Championed by his creator Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer), an armoured, technologically-enhanced Murphy marches out onto the mean streets of Detroit, fights crime with ruthless efficiency, and becomes a media celebrity in the process.
Gradually, however, the man within the machine begins to resurface. Murphy slowly begins to experience vague memories of his previous life, and when he catches a member of Bodicker’s gang one night (the sneering punk Emil, played by Paul McCrane), his horrible fate comes rushing back. What happens next, courtesy of screenwriters Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner, is like a post-modern reworking of a classic detective thriller: Murphy resolves to find out the identities of the men who killed him, and finds that the trail of corruption leads almost to the top of the company which brought him back to life in the first place.
RoboCop is often remembered for its outlandish and (even by 1980s standards) graphic violence, directed with real vim and creativity by Paul Verhoeven. But there’s philosophy and soul behind the bloodshed, and Verhoeven brings genuine pathos to Murphy’s plight. There’s an unvarnished brutality not only to Murphy’s torture, but also to the sequence where we see paramedics attempt to save him afterwards.
The bloodiness of these scenes has an emotional pay-off later on, when we see Murphy return to what was once his family home. Where there was once the laughter of his wife and child, there’s now only emptiness - a broken coffee cup (“Best Dad in the World” it reads) and the remains of an old family photo are all that physically remain of Murphy’s past. Reeling in pain from all he’s lost, Murphy charges back out of the house, smashing a chattering television screen with a metal fist as he leaves.
Peter Weller’s performance here, clad as he is in Rob Bottin’s figure-hugging and no doubt awkward RoboCop outfit, is little short of astonishing. For much of RoboCop’s second act, we see little more than the bottom half of Weller’s chin; somehow, through his sheer physicality, Weller brings an uncanny emotional weight to the seen illustrated above.
Much of what makes RoboCop so brilliant can be found in Basil Poledouris’ score. Seamlessly, it moves from triumphant march to playful, even mischievous murmur to sonorous emotion and back. The film as a whole masterfully modulates in tone just as the score does. Horrific murders give way to broad comedy; blistering action nuzzles up alongside scenes of desperate sadness.
What could have been a cheap amalgam of Judge Dredd and The Six Million Dollar Man instead emerges as a unique creation with a few familiar colours in its varied palette. Some look at RoboCop and see in it a modern western, while others describe it as nothing less than a techno retelling of Christ’s death and resurrection - Verhoeven himself riffs on this analogy by having Robo appear to walk on water in one sequence.
RoboCop somehow achieves all this in its compact 102 minute duration, and we haven’t even mentioned how great its extended cast is, from Nancy Allen as the reliably tough Anne Lewis to Ronny Cox as a cold-blooded corporate villain. Or how funny all those fake advertisements and news bulletins are. Or the sheer brilliance of Phil Tippet’s stop-motion animated robot monster ED-209 - part law enforcer, part grounded attack helicopter, all useless. Or the wealth of quotable lines present on every page of the screenplay: “I’d buy that for a dollar”; “Dead or alive, you’re coming with me”; “You’re fired, Dick”.
Ultimately, RoboCop gets away with being and doing all these things not only because the filmmakers and writers behind it were unusually smart (Verhoeven was a maths and physics graduate before he became a movie director) but also because, for all its excesses and surplus of great ideas, it has laser-precise focus.
At RoboCop’s centre is the story of an ordinary man who suddenly becomes displaced from the familiar comforts of his life through no fault of his own. Having lost everything, he embarks on a mission to avenge his own death - not just for vengeance’s own sake, but because he’s trying to reconnect with the human part of himself lost among the armour and circuits.
Action movie, corporate satire, sci-fi western, crime classic: call RoboCop what you like. It’s the human story at its core that makes Verhoeven’s film so unforgettably brilliant.
We'll be looking back at the other crime classics you can vote for - Minority Report, Silence Of The Lambs - over the next few days.
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