Saturday, February 15, 2014

Stubs - RoboCop (1987)


RoboCop (1987) Starring: Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Dan O’Herlihy, Ronny Cox, Kurtwood Smith, Miguel Ferrer. Directed by Paul Verhoeven. Screenplay by Edward Neumeier, Michael Miner. Produced by Arne Schmidt. Run time 102 minutes. US. Color. Science Fiction, Drama, Action

Inspired by a poster for Blade Runner and the British comic book hero Judge Dredd, Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner dreamed up an idea which became RoboCop. Perhaps one of the most violent films made up to that point, the film originally received an X-rating, then reserved only for strong sexual content, the equivalent of an NC-17 rating today.

Director, Paul Verhoeven, up until then strictly a Dutch director, best known for Soldier of Orange (1977) and Spetters (1980), wanted the violence to be so over the top that the more the merrier. However, an X rating was then considered a box office death sentence, as no mall cinema would show one and no newspaper would accept advertisement. This is in the days before the all-powerful internet.

It took 11 revisions, but with some editing, the film managed to snag an R rating. And while the uncut version is available as a special feature, we will be looking at the original theatrical version.

In a dystopian future, Detroit, Michigan is on the verge of collapse due to financial ruin and being overrun by crime. To escape mass collapse, the city mayor has signed a deal with the mega-corporation Omni Consumer Products (OCP), run by The Old Man (Dan O’Herlihy), giving them ultimate control over the police force, talk about privatization gone awry. In exchange, OCP is allowed to demolish the run-down section of the city, called Old Detroit, and construct a high-end utopia called "Delta City" to be managed by OCP, of course.

The police rank and file is not happy about being forced to work for OCP, which puts profits over the safety of their officers. Policemen are being killed at an alarming rate. In the locker room there is talk of a strike.

Enter Officer Alex Murphy (Peter Weller), a transfer into the precinct. He is paired with Officer Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen), whose partner has recently died. Alex is about to have the worst first day ever. Lewis and Murphy follow a van carrying Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith) and his gang: Leon C. Nash (Ray Wise); Steve Minh (Calvin Jung); Emil M. Antonowsky (Paul McCrane) and Joe P. Cox (Jesse Goins). They’ve just robbed a bank, but the money has been burned. Lewis and Murphy follow them to an abandoned steel mill. The officers split up and Lewis is subdued by Cox, who knocks her over a railing and assumes she’s dead.

Officer Murphy (Peter Weller) reporting for duty after his transfer to a new precinct.

Murphy meanwhile comes across two members of the gang. While he kills one, the others overwhelm him. Boddicker shoots off his right hand and the gang opens fire, severing his right arm in a steady volley of bullets. Boddicker supplies the “kill” shot, putting a round into Murphy’s head. All the while Lewis watches, though she makes no effort to stop the slaughter of her partner.

Murphy about to meet the business end of Boddicker's (Kurtwood Smith) gun.

Meanwhile, in the boardroom at OCP law enforcement. OCP senior president Dick Jones (Ronny Cox) demos a new droid, the ED-209, which is designed to replace human officers, who need time off to sleep and eat and stuff like that. If you’ve ever demoed something, you know things rarely work out as planned. In this case, one of the junior executives, who is volunteered by Jones to help with the demonstration, is laid to waste by the ED-209 despite complying with its orders. Oh, those software errors.

ED-209 dispatching an unarmed junior executive in the OCP boardroom.

To say the least, The Old Man is not enthused by this and Jones is called out. Step in Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer), a junior executive who has been working on a contingency program, Robocop, which calls for the combination of a robot’s mechanics and a human’s knowledge and savvy.

The OCP brain trust: The Old Man (Dan O'Herilhy) and Jones (Ronny Cox) listen to
upstart Bob Morton's (Miguel Ferrer) idea about RoboCop.

The recently deceased Murphy provides the human they need for their experiment. (Apparently Murphy signed away his rights to rest in peace or to be treated as a human being when he joined the OCP-run police force. Note: Always read the fine print on the job application.) Even though doctors could save Murphy’s left arm, Morton is adamant about him having a robot body and the arm is cut off. There is a little bit of QA, but it is not too long before RoboCop is ready for deployment. His memory is supposedly wiped clean, like his brain is a hard drive, and he is given three primary directives: 1. serve the public trust; 2. protect the innocent; and 3. uphold the law. There is a fourth, classified directive that apparently no one in development is aware of.

RoboCop, still working out the kinks, takes target practice.

When sent out to the streets, RoboCop proves to be an efficient, though bloody crime fighter. He seems impervious to bullets and tries to wound and not kill the criminal he confronts. RoboCop’s success pleases The Old Man, but draws Jones’ ire, especially when Morton is so disrespectful of his older superiors. Morton is visited one night by Boddicker, who, working for Jones, not only kills Morton, he blows him up.

Robocop disarms a would be robber/

Lewis observes that the Robocop displays some of Murphy’s mannerisms, including some trick shooting Murphy had told her he learned from a TV show his son watches. When she has a moment alone with RoboCop, she asks if he’s Murphy. This starts to spark repressed memories of his past life with wife, Ellen (Angie Bolling), and son, Jimmy (Jason Levine). He goes to his old home, but his wife, believing he’s dead, has moved away to start over.

Officer Lewis (Nancy Allen) asks RoboCop if he's really her old partner Murphy.

RoboCop considers Boddicker to be the most evil man and, with the help of Nash, manages to track down Boddicker to a cocaine factory. There is a firefight and, of course, RoboCop is triumphant. The only one left unscathed is Boddicker. RoboCop threatens to kill Boddicker when he catches him, but Boddicker confesses to be working for Jones, and reminds RoboCop that he is a cop.

Since RoboCop can’t kill Boddicker, he arrests him instead and goes after Jones at OCP headquarters. But Jones is one step ahead of him. When RoboCop tries to arrest Jones he triggers the secret fourth directive, which prevents him from taking action against any executive at OCP. Thinking RoboCop is debilitated, Jones admits to ordering his murder. He then unleashes ED-209 on the outmatched RoboCop. When RoboCop flees down a stairwell, the ED-209 cannot follow. Even though he escapes the larger robot, who tumbles onto its back and cannot get up, like a helpless baby, an ambush of policemen are waiting for RoboCop. Lewis saves RoboCop and takes him, where else, but the abandoned steel mill where Murphy was killed.

Meanwhile, the police force finally goes on strike, in protest of such things as losing their jobs to robots like RoboCop and crime runs rampant. Jones offers Boddicker the underworld spoils of the Delta City construction crew, which they estimate will employ two millions workers. Boddicker regroups his gang and, armed with high-powered guns and a tracking device provided by Jones, they converge on the steel mill.

In a running gun battle, in which one of Boddicker’s gang gets mutated when he crashes into a vat of industrial toxic waste and RoboCop gets a load of scrap metal dumped on him, Murphy and Lewis are triumphant, even though in the end Lewis is critically wounded.

The vat was labelled Toxic Waste when he crashed into it.

RoboCop then heads to OCP, where he very easily takes out the ED-209 Jones has deployed at the entrance. Jones is in the midst of offering the ED-209 as a replacement for what he calls a failed RoboCop program, when RoboCop uses recorded footage of Jones’ confession to show his duplicity to the board.

Jones takes The Old Man hostage and threatens to kill him if his demands aren’t met. RoboCop is powerless to stop him as long as he’s an OCP employee, but the President fires Jones on the spot, freeing RoboCop to take Jones out, shooting him back through a plate glass window and falling to his death. The Old Man thanks RoboCop for his help and asks for his name; RoboCop answers, "Murphy".

Jones fought the law and the law won.

I’m pretty sure I haven’t been able to express just how violent this movie is.(There's also an unrated Director's cut, one of the X-rated versions, that promises to be even more violent.) People aren’t just shot when they can be mutilated. Why use one bullet when ten is overkill? Everything is so over the top that it becomes almost funny at times to watch. This is cartoon violence to the extreme. And to go with the violence, the characters are cartoon-ish, too. They are not just bad guys, they’re crazy bad guys. It’s as if they commit crime just for the sake of breaking the law, regardless of any monetary gain. One of Boddicker’s gang, Cox, laughs like a hyena with joy while he shoots and kills. These are almost like Batman villains without the costumes.

On the face of it, RoboCop (1987) has a lot in common with Total Recall (1990). Not only are both films directed by Paul Verhoeven, but the same actor, Ronny Cox, plays the evil corporate mastermind. In fact, the characters Cox plays in both films, Jones in RoboCop and Cohaagen in Total Recall, seem very similar. They both even have an evil minion who does the dirty work for them. In RoboCop it's Boddicker and in Total Recall it's Richter (Michael Ironside). Both films present a less than glowing future, filled with gadgets, corruption and violence. The films might be even more similar; I’ve read that Arnold Schwarzenegger, the star of Total Recall, was even considered for the Murphy character in RoboCop.

When RoboCop was released, the film did good business, about $53.5 million, received some positive reviews and went on to spawn two more sequels: RoboCop 2 (1990), RoboCop 3 (1993); two animated TV Series: RoboCop: The Animated Series and RoboCop: Alpha Commando; two live action series: RoboCop: The Series and RoboCop: Prime Directives, not to mention video games and comic books. And just when you think they’ve wrung the concept dry, it’s time for the inevitable reboot: RoboCop (2014). Not having seen the new film, I won’t pass judgment other than to say it would be nice to see Hollywood find new stories to tell rather than relying on trying to better past ones, since it so rarely works.

RoboCop (1987) is far from a perfect movie. This is a film in which the future looks remarkably like the 1980’s or at least the least flattering images of that decade with the big hair, big framed glasses and otherwise horrible fashion sense. The special effects are somewhat uneven. While the stop action filming of ED-209 looks good, the shot of Jones falling to his death reeks of green screen techniques that have only gotten better since. The RoboCop outfit looks maybe a little too unwieldy to be practical, but he seems to have a lot of gadgets, including an R2D2-like computer interface, which can also be used as a weapon.

The characters are pretty much one-dimensional, even Murphy. With him we see that he has a past, but it really has little or no bearing on his RoboCop persona. It would take more of a crossover between Murphy’s life and RoboCop’s than this movie permits for there to be any real depth. Murphy was one-dimensional and so is RoboCop.

Nancy Allen, whose career had already hit a peak with movies like Dressed to Kill (1980) and Blow Out (1981), both directed by her then husband Brian DePalma, had a resurgence of sorts with the RoboCop trilogy. But there really isn’t all that much for Officer Lewis to do in most of this movie. She barely has a chance to build any rapport with Murphy so her concern for RoboCop seems a little forced. She stands there and watches her new partner get slaughtered and sort of avenges herself at the end of the film, but I don't think she's a very strong character.

Peter Weller’s Murphy/RoboCop role made the actor a movie star and while he has worked steadily over the years, last appearing in Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), he primarily appear on television: 11 episodes of 24 (2006) and 8 episodes of Dexter (2010). Most interesting to me is his hosting of The History Channel’s series Engineering an Empire (2005-2007) where he is credited, not as an actor, but as a lecturer at Syracuse University.

Paul Verhoeven, who would go on to score box office success following RoboCop with Total Recall (1990), Basic Instinct (1992) would also have less success with subsequent films like Showgirls (1995), Starship Troopers (1997) and Hollow Man (2000) before returning to the Netherlands to make films in 2006. There is one scene in RoboCop that also seemed reminiscent with a much longer scene in Starship Troopers. In RoboCop there is a brief locker room scene, where women are seen dressing and undressing with their male counterparts on the force, which reminded me of the shower scene in Starship Troopers, where men and women openly shower together. I don’t know if Verhoeven is trying to make a point about men and women doing the same job being treated equally or if he’s just looking for a way to work in female nudity into stories where you wouldn't expect it.


Murphy walks through the co-ed locker room at left in RoboCop
and troopers take co-ed showers in Starship Troopers at right.

All of his Hollywood films feature nudity in some amount. Basic Instinct is perhaps best remembered for Sharon Stone’s panty-less up skirt shots, and Showgirls is full of it, even when it’s not sexy or needed. In Hollow Man, Sebastian (Kevin Bacon) uses his invisibility to rape his hot neighbor (Rhona Mitra), so there’s not always a message of equality behind Verhoeven's naked ambitions. I digress.

While I would recommend the original RoboCop, I would caution that it is definitely not for everyone. Violent, this film does make a point about the relationship between man and machine.

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