The MovieDutch director Paul Verhoeven made his American feature debut with 1987’s RoboCop, a startlingly brutal sci-fi tale which blends excoriating satire with bloody ultra-violence and the blackest of humour to dazzling effect.
Via a dark, foreboding title screen we’re introduced to this dystopian near-future by a selection of outlandish news items and crass commercials, which immediately gives the audience an inkling of the hyperbolic world they’re about to enter. We soon cross paths with Alex Murphy, a cop and dedicated family man who’s just been transferred into Metro West, the foulest part of Detroit’s lawless underbelly. Having been partnered with Officer Anne Lewis, they respond to a call of a bank robbery and chase the crooks into their lair, an abandoned steel mill. Unbeknownst to them, the gang’s mastermind happens to be Clarence Boddicker, a psychopathic career criminal who’s out to raise as much hell as possible in Metro West. Murphy confronts the gang on his own, but is tortured and executed before Lewis can get to him. Officer Alex Murphy is dead….until his body is appropriated by Omni Consumer Products, the corporation in charge of shepherding decrepit Detroit towards a bright, shiny new future in the shape of the Delta City project.
After the failure of OCP Senior President Dick Jones’ “urban pacification” prototype, namely the hulking ED-209 droid, Jones is undercut by Bob Morton, a ruthless young OCP executive in charge of a rival defence program. With Murphy’s death comes the perfect opportunity for Morton, and Alex Murphy is thusly reborn as RoboCop, designed to be the perfect law-enforcement tool; a cyborg with the disciplined mind of a policeman, superior firepower and a virtually indestructible titanium body. Murphy’s mind is wiped, his personality having been flushed away, until Officer Lewis recognises remnants of the man in this machine. She confronts Robo and stirs something in what remains of his soul, which starts a chain of events that will ultimately reveal the conspiracy that’s at the rotten core of old Detroit.
Verhoeven’s movie is, quite simply, a classic for the ages. Scripted by Ed Neumeier (who would go on to pen Starship Troopers, being something of a spiritual sequel to RoboCop) and Michael Miner, it takes dead aim at all of the chief satirical targets of the 1980’s – such as the privatisation of public services, the potential fascist might of the military-industrial complex, the culture of excess endemic to big business, the absurdity of the media and the threat of nuclear conflict – and it seems all the more relevant today. Not only that, there are many layers of subtext to peel back with regards to Robo himself, with undertones of the Frankenstein mythos (such as when he glimpses a distorted reflection of his reconstituted visage) and more overtly the Robo-as-Christ metaphor: Murphy is tortured and put to death, paying for his selflessness with his life, only to be resurrected as the saviour of old Detroit. Admittedly, I don’t think Jesus dispensed white-hot rounds of 9mm justice with an Auto-9 pistol, though Robo does appear to walk on water when he stalks Boddicker at the film’s climax…
It’s startling, then, that even with all of those connotations swirling around, the film still seems to have such clarity of vision. That charge can be laid at Verhoeven’s door, as the Dutchman’s uncompromising filmmaking attitude towards sex and violence (borne out of seeing various horrors as a boy in the Netherlands during World War II) imbues the film with a harder edge than many of its contemporaries, even more so in the gruesome unrated cut presented on disc here. And yet at the same time it’s shot through with a vein of the darkest humour, providing genuine laugh-out-loud moments. It even works as a straight action film, kicking off with a fast-paced shootout on wheels as Murphy and Lewis chase Boddicker and his crew, and then Robo takes out an entire drug factory single-handed before being attacked by his own side in a blazing hail of gunfire. We also get to see ED-209 in action, brilliantly realised as a stop-motion miniature by Phil Tippett.
But it’s the iron-willed performance at the centre of the movie which lends it so much gravitas and heart. Peter Weller worked tirelessly with makeup legend Rob Bottin, the creator of the Robo costume, to nail the performance using the limitations of the heavy rubber suit to inform the stilted mechanical movement which, when combined with the realistic sound effects, creates an utterly convincing character. And Weller also excels in the quieter moments; when Robo’s helmet comes off and we see what remains of the man, his struggle for identity is etched on his face (as well as the bullet hole which ended his former life).
However, what would Jesus be without the Devil? Boddicker, Robo’s nemesis, is imbued with pure malice by Kurtwood Smith, a man who has otherwise played some very nice people during his long career. Boddicker’s callous nature is at odds with his bookish appearance, though it could be argued that his round-rimmed glasses are an intentional allusion to Heinrich Himmler, one of the most infamous of all Nazis. Another man playing against type is Ronny Cox, providing a wonderfully malevolent performance as Dick Jones, the cynical Senior President of OCP. Heck, even Nancy Allen takes a break from playing one of Brian De Palma’s glamourous oddballs to give us the laconic Lewis, a tough street cop who manages to reawaken Robo’s humanity. Miguel Ferrer is terrifically tenacious as Bob Morton, the youthful OCP hotshot who’s out to rain on Jones’ parade but who gets more than he bargained for, and honourable mentions go to Ray Wise, Paul McCrane and Jesse Goins for their roles as Boddicker's amoral gang.
Shot in and around Dallas, Texas, the city makes a fine substitute for the decaying burg of old Detroit. The production design ably combines the futuristic styling of the OCP building (in actuality the Dallas Town Hall) with the rundown city blocks that surround it. The crumbling, disused Pennsylvania steel mill employed as Boddicker’s hideout is the sort of real location that couldn’t look any better on-screen had the best designers worked on it for a year. Its imposing structure projects a sense of industrial-gothic gloom that acts as a symbol of the decline of manufacturing in America’s heartlands, which is all too obvious in the real Detroit now, never mind then.
Other aspects of the production design still hold up extremely well too, such as the disturbingly militaristic body armour that the police wear, along with their shapely, smooth-lined cars that look more like modern automobiles rather than the angular, boxy designs so prevalent in the ‘80s. Then of course there’s Robo himself, and although his design may look a touch clunky compared to the streamlined latter-day efforts of your average Iron Man movie and indeed the RoboCop remake, it's performed quite beautifully by Weller and carries that much more heft and weight as a result. The design of the ED-209 droid takes that sense of weight and magnifies it a hundred times, resulting in a growling, heavily-armed brute of a biped that is about as far from sleek and sophisticated as you can get – which is entirely the point!
I can’t wrap up this RoboCop write up without a mention of Basil Poledouris’ magnificent music score. It has a swirling electronic feel, mixed with brooding strings and horns that eventually coalesce into a propulsive, percussive theme that drives the story onwards, and provides the film with another layer of its own distinctive identity. As overwhelming as the music can sometimes seem to be, Poledouris is also adept at underpinning the more introspective moments, as well as creating the cheesy motifs heard in the bleakly funny commercials and Media Break news items which are scattered throughout the movie.
There have been many incarnations of RoboCop since the release of the 1987 movie, including two theatrical sequels and a selection of various TV guises, including a cartoon, a live-action series and a mini-series, none of which managed to capture the gleefully subversive nature of the original (though Irvin Kershner's sadistic RoboCop 2 deserves an honourable mention). The elephant in the room is of course the impending remake by José Padilha, which is the sole reason why Verhoeven’s film has been dusted off for another Blu-ray release. I fail to appreciate what the new PG-13 rated film can say which the old one didn’t, aside from taking a heavy-handed swipe at drone warfare which is hardly an original concept. In any case, the original isn’t just one of the best films of the ‘80s, it’s one of the best films ever made, so the new one has a lot to live up to.
“Your move, creep!”
The DiscFor MGM's 90th anniversary they've brought us a newly remastered all-region Blu-ray of RoboCop stuffed with most of the previous extra features and a stack of additional language options. The movie itself is the unrated Director's Cut which first debuted on the Criterion label, restoring several snippets of violence which were cut by the MPAA to avoid the dreaded X rating. It has been said by some that the extra gore helps to heighten the absurd comic-book nature of the violence, and though this is true for the death of Mr Kinney, the OCP flunky who’s shot to pieces by a malfunctioning ED-209, the opposite is true for Murphy’s demise, because it draws out his agony in excruciating detail and enhances the unflinching brutality of his tormentors. (I would’ve liked to have had the theatrical version included for the sake of completeness, but it’s not a deal breaker.)
The movie is presented in a theatrically-correct 1.85 aspect, encoded with AVC. Supposedly a fresh remaster done at 4K, this new transfer is a world apart from the bland, dull version seen on the old Blu-ray, though I still have a couple of minor reservations. It’s probably come from an interpositive and not the original negative – the infrequent black marks on the image are a clear indicator – which gives the grain a slightly softer look than other recent 4K remasters (like those which are pumped out by Sony on a regular basis). This appearance has nothing to do with ‘poor film stock’ or whatever silly excuse people like to have, as RoboCop was shot on the same premium high-speed stock(s) that every other major production was using at the time. The unrated footage still looks very soft with flat shadow detail, suggesting that they've continued to use the trims that Criterion dug up, instead of sourcing better elements for those shots in the new transfer.
Putting those niggles aside, it’s great to finally see Jost Vacano’s photography looking so fresh and vibrant. Detail is crisp without any signs of aggressive oversharpening, and the colour is pleasingly robust, looking nothing like the sickly orange tones of the old Sony remaster, nor is it as pallid as the more recent 20th Anniversary DVD transfer from MGM. And neither does it look like it’s been timed with more modern sensibilities, as Robo's armour is a cool grey overlaid with shimmering highlights, and hasn't been pushed towards green or teal as is so often the case with new transfers. The copious amounts of blood are a gleaming arterial red, as they should be.
The image is bright and punchy. Contrast seems to run a teensy bit hot here and there, especially in brighter highlights like backdrops of sky, but crucially the darker spots don’t suffer from any undue crushing, which is one of the flaws of the old HD transfer. Blacks are fine. As mentioned before, the image isn’t spotlessly clean but if that was the limit of the clean-up then so be it, as I’d rather have a few specks and marks to remind me that this is film I’m watching and not some badly-processed digital monstrosity. I noticed no overt compression problems with either blocking or banding, though there is some very odd noise in the image for a few seconds when Robo skewers Boddicker with his data spike. And it's worth bearing in mind that all of the TV-related interstitials are designed to look like low-res composite video, so no complaints on that front.
The audio is represented by a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix, which sounds to my ears like the same 5.1 track that's been doing the rounds for a while now. There are no aural heroics here, mainly because it's a straightforward upmix of the Dolby Stereo original (though there was also a 70mm 6-track mix). The music is clear but not as aggressive as I would like, while the action sequences lack the bite and impact that one might expect, featuring lots of stock gunshots and very restrained bass, although there is a reasonable amount of split-rear activity in certain sequences. What has always come through well is the buzzing, humming electronic undercurrent that follows Robo around. The often absurdly funny dialogue is reproduced without issue. (The discrete 4.0 track from the old US Blu-ray which represented the original mix has not been included.)
Extra features are plentiful. Most have been culled from the first Special Edition DVD release and the 20th Anniversary DVD, with the addition of a new 42-minute Q&A with the filmmakers and stars. It's a bit stilted and generally covers old ground, but there are some fresh insights to be had, like Weller's lightbulb moment when he was rehearsing with Verhoeven and realised Robo had a soul. The audio commentary features Verhoeven, Neumeier and producer Jon Davison, and it's a good track from three men who are clearly at ease in each other's company, and Verhoeven and Neumeier in particular are never short of something to say about the politics of the film and the themes that they were striving towards. (The commentary from the Criterion edition has not been carried over, nor have the photo galleries from the 20th Anniversary DVD.)
Flesh and Steel is a decent retrospective making-of documentary that touches on various aspects of the film's creation. The three newer featurettes from the 20th Anniversary DVD (RoboCop: Creating a Legend, Special Effects: Then and Now, The Villains of Old Detroit) take a bit more of a laid-back approach, the interviewees coming across as more genial than in the main doc. I particularly liked Miguel Ferrer's story about how he got tired of Weller's method acting and called him out on it! Next up is a couple of vintage EPK features (Shooting RoboCop, Making RoboCop) containing the usual combo of generic sound-bites and behind the scenes footage. The Boardroom is a Phil Tippett-narrated storyboard comparision of ED-209's explosive entrance in the film. The Deleted Scenes amount to a few excised news reports, although the final Media Break is essentially an alternate ending to the film that wraps up Lewis' story. The Paul Verhoeven Easter Egg (yes, it's actually called that in the menu, so not much of an easter egg then!) is a very short bit about the director's crazed cameo in the nightclub scene. Finally we get the theatrical trailer and a TV spot.