I’ll buy that for a dollar!

Although clearly intended as insightful social commentary on the Reagan era, Paul Verhoeven’s first American film works better as straight action with a dose of comedy and a surprising helping of existential turmoil for its titular character. The attempts at social satire were sophomoric even in 1987 but fortunately the director didn’t seem to take that element too seriously, focusing instead on Robocop (Peter Weller) and his struggle to reclaim his submerged humanity.

The film takes place in one of those fantasy futures where capitalism is just as evil as liberals imagine it to be. Crime is rampant in Old Detroit, where Omni Computer Products have been contracted to run the city police. Unfortunately, cops have been dying at a prodigious rate, many at the hands of local crime boss Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith). This crime wave puts a crimp in OCP’s plan to rebuild Old Detroit as “Delta City.”

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OCP’s security division, in the person of Dick Jones (Ronny Cox), has a solution: the ED-209, a police robot armed like an infantry platoon. Unfortunately, when it is demoed for the OCP CEO, known only as The Old Man (Dan O’Herlihy), things go spectacularly badly as a junior executive volunteered to help with the demonstration is carved up like a turkey. An ambitious junior member of Jones’ team, Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer), has another solution.

Unfortunately, that solution requires the remains of a recently deceased cop. A new transfer to the city’s worst precinct, Alex Murphy (Weller) runs afoul of Boddicker’s gang and it costs him not quite an arm and a leg. Actually, it’s just an arm, plus most of the contents of his torso and head. He expires on the operating table.


However, in the words of Miracle Max in The Princess Bride, he’s only “mostly dead.” Apparently something in Murphy’s contract wills his body to OCP’s security division, who use what’s left of Murphy to build a cyborg known as Robocop, the world’s ultimate action figure (Be the first on your block to have one, kids! Now with extra lethal force! Civil liberties not included!). Strangely, only Murphy’s ex-partner, Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen), notices the resemblance between the new guy and the recently deceased cop.

Anyway, Robocop goes out and practically cleans up Old Detroit in one night, making Morton both a rising star and a marked man. Robocop has effectively sabotaged the ED-209 project and Dick Jones is not happy, not happy at all.

A few story points work better if you don’t think too hard about them, especially why Robocop needs a human being at its core, other than to provide the movie with a tragic central figure and make OCP seem even more eeeeeevil. Then there’s that whole business with ED-209’s little oopsie in the boardroom. Seriously, who’s the dumbshit who put live ammo in that thing with the entire corporate brain trust in the room?

There is comedy in RoboCop and the funniest scene is the bloodiest, when poor young Mr. Kinney (Kevin Page) winds up on the wrong end of ED-209’s spectacular failure to meet expectations. The version I’m reviewing is the unrated cut recently re-released on DVD, previously available on the out-of-print Criterion Collection disc. This version contains scenes that were trimmed in the theatrical version to ward off an X rating. In the uncut version, the death of Mr. Kinney lasts for several extra seconds, mostly showing dozens more extremely bloody bullet hits on the body. The effect is comic in its excess, taking the gruesomeness to the level of slapstick. Buster Keaton, meet Quentin Tarantino. In the R-rated theatrical cut, the scene is shorter and, in many ways, far less humorous and more realistic. Paradoxically, by forcing Verhoeven to cut the violence, the MPAA made the film even more violent.

A couple of performances stand out. Previously typecast as a kindly, reassuring television dad, Ronny Cox remade his career with this movie, becoming everyone’s favorite venal corporate villain. As Clarence Boddicker, Kurtwood Smith carves out a memorably evil but coolly humorous character, helping him leap from previously obscure guest turns to much more visible character roles. Ironically, he ultimately went on to be just the kind of TV dad that Ronny Cox left behind.

As a commentary on the era in which it was made, RoboCop hasn’t aged particularly well. Fortunately, the action, the humor and an atypically resonant human story at its core still make this Paul Verhoeven’s best American movie so far.

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