WFTB Score: 13/20
The plot: Plucky Detroit cop Murphy tries to fight a ruthless gang of robbers single-handed, and pays with his life. This is far from the end of his story, however, as the company in control of policing have a plan to create an automated police force, and Murphy is the prime candidate to become the first of a new kind of law enforcement officer. But can Robocop uphold the law neutrally, when there are powerful self-interests at work?
The news reports from Old Detroit make for grim viewing, even though the reporters themselves are quite cheery. The city’s police force has been privatised and is now run by a huge corporation, Omni Consumer Products, who have bigger things on their mind than the under-funded, strike-minded officers who are being targeted by renowned cop-killer Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith). For OCP stand to make millions from building Delta City, a shining new Phoenix from the flames, and plan to police what’s left with automated sentries. Against this backdrop, happy husband and father Murphy (Peter Weller) is transferred into the Metro West section and partnered up with Lewis (Nancy Allen); the pair are instantly pressed into action when only they respond to a robbery carried out by Boddicker’s gang, and although Lewis escapes from their factory hideaway to see another day, Murphy is cornered and downed in a hail of bullets and mocking laughter.
Back at OCP, all is not well for Dick Jones (Ronny Cox), the man in charge of creating the law-enforcing ED-209 robots; a prototype opens fire on a young board member in spite of his innocence. This opens the door for Miguel Ferrer’s weaselly underling Rob to promote his own section’s work on creating cybernetic police officers, and since OCP technically own Murphy’s body, who better to start with than the recently deceased officer? The seemingly invulnerable ‘Robocop’ is born and immediately sets to work righting wrongs in Detroit, but as he works his way up the food chain of perps towards another encounter with Boddicker, two things become apparent: firstly, the process that made Robocop has not eradicated all traces of Murphy’s memories, despite the fact that he doesn’t appear to recognise Lewis; and secondly, there’s a pretty close link between the criminals and certain individuals at OCP. Since Murphy is also linked pretty closely to OCP, there is bound to be a conflict in his programming sooner or later.
The ancestry of Robocop is easy to guess at, taking much of its DNA from Judge Dredd comic strips and James Cameron’s Terminator, with a splash of Wall Street-style 80s greed to flesh out the cops vs robbers storyline. The impact of the film, then, lies not so much in the idea as the execution, and here the director revels in glorious excess. Verhoeven has always been shockingly direct about violence, choosing to show it in explosive, exaggerated detail: why shoot someone twice when twenty times will do? I commend the directness of the style, rather than enjoy it, but the characters – whether it be Boddicker’s hyena-like crew or the hateful, vicious suits working at OCP – have a cruel streak a mile wide that heightens the viewer’s distaste for them (and our delight at their ultimate fate).
Coupled with this is a cynical humour about the decayed state of the near future (for which read ‘the present’), with adverts for board games called ‘Nukem’, satirical news stories about out-of-control space defence systems, and shows featuring lecherous old men chasing models with his catchphrase ‘I’d buy that for a dollar!’ In fact, most of the screenplay is pleasingly vicious, with the famous ‘You have twenty seconds to comply’ scene a particularly good example, Kenny’s death treated as no more than a financial setback by the other board members of OCP.
The film also tries to show a softer side, as Murphy is plagued by dreams of his old life and breaks off from crime-fighting to find out what happened to his family. Peter Weller does a good job at playing the cyborg with just a hint of desolation, and Nancy Allen provides empathy as Lewis; but you get the impression that the gentler stuff is merely a handy pause for Verhoeven between action scenes, which are generally well done despite evidence of a limited budget: the make-up and prosthetics that turn Weller into Robocop are excellent, and the ED-209s are scary despite the sometimes less-than-smooth movement of the stop-motion animation that brings them to life. Less satisfactory is the fact that Robocop is limited to moving at no more than a brisk walk, a handicap which mars the slightly disjointed climactic battle in which Boddicker’s men are picked off one by one.
Verhoeven has shown time and again (Basic Instinct, Total Recall, Starship Troopers) that films needn’t have likeable characters, big names or immaculate production values to produce exciting, visceral cinema, and in Robocop he gives us some truly despicable villains (hissably portrayed by Smith and Cox) that we subconsciously urge our reconstituted hero to bring down as painfully as possible. I don’t know whether it deserves the reputation it has in some quarters as a classic of the sci-fi action genre, because with so much bullet-ridden action to fit in, it’s rather light on the science. For this precise reason, however, it is perhaps the perfect film for a beery, blokey night in.