By: Garrett Collins
Starring: Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Kurtwood Smith, Miguel Ferrer, Dan O’Herlihy, Ronny Cox, and Ray Wise
Very rarely does a film come around so full of soot, that you can smell the grime oozing off the screen. Very rarely is a play on satire so biting, that it takes dark to a whole new level. Very rarely has an action film been such a strikingly vivid Christ parable told in a violent late 80s sheen. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Robocop. A film whose premise had been laughed at by every major studio in the script pitching phase, it took the deftly stroked hand of a very undistinguished at stateside director to make it respectable. Enter Paul Verhoeven. A man whose sleazy hands are all over the place here, I would argue that Robocop would not even be close to the hit that it was without his finger prints.
Let’s go over the story. Detroit is at a progressive standstill. Bankrupt and enclosed in crime, the police force are finding themselves cornered and having to do something. When first attempt Ed – 209 goes haywire, executive Bob Morton (Ferrer) comes up with Robocop. By placing everyman cop Alex Murphy (Weller) from the good district to the bad one, Morton also has picked his creation’s guinea pig out. What follows Is a story of redemption and revenge enveloped in a completely over the top environment. As a whole, Robocop completely works. Its violence (full of Verhoeven type touches) is one of its strengths in that it is the finest form of satire. The nature of Emil’s toxic waste death, for example, is so over the top that one can’t help but smile as he screeches gurgled messes of lines before getting completely liquefied by a speeding truck. It is readily apparent that Verhoeven is not displaying violence for us to turn away from. He wants us to laugh at it. Which is exactly what I do. The nature of black comedy is that it makes you uncomfortable to laugh at. When Verhoeven is at his best, he can make it look effortless. And this final battle of wits between Robocop & Bodicker’s thugs, along with a montage that includes Robocop shooting a would be rapist through a skirt between his legs, is about as darkly comic as they come.
At the center of it all is Weller as Murphy. A character we barely get to know before he is shot to shreds, we still care for Murphy due to very efficient storytelling. We see him twirling his gun like his son’s idol TJ Laser before holstering it, and it endears us to him like it does Lewis (Allen.) An actor with not the best reputation, Weller is nonetheless great in the role. Even Allen, whom I feel should thank Brian DePalma for her meal ticket, is fine in the role of Lewis. I respected the writers’ decision to abandon any form of developing romance between Murphy and Lewis. We know where his heart lies, and even when he is in the suit, she serves more of a mom role than anything else.
It must be said that there is probably not a more laborious suit in cinema history than the Robocop suit. Both make-up artist Rob Bottin and Peter Weller suffered through its creation and placement. In fact, tension arose so much between Verhoeven and Bottin that they didn’t talk again for years. All this effort completely pays off, and its creation is made even better by the sound design around it. Every step is hydraulically perfect, and the blue silver sheen that reflects off his body fittingly matches the film’s pallet. It must also be said that Basil Poledouris’ score is excellent. Its greatest feat is walking the line between heroics and tragedy, pumping its themes through our ears as Verhoeven does the same to our eyes.
Robocop isn’t perfect. Some of the dialogue is pretty cartoonish (“you’ll shit snow for a year”), and sometimes Vervoeven’s Christ like parables are pretty heavy-handed (Robo walking on water.) But his opinion of Reagonomics takes on another storytelling life, and the way certain plot points unfold are done smooth as silk (Directive 4, Murphy’s flashbacks.) Verhoeven’s first Hollywood production is arguably his best, and needs to be seen. If you haven’t seen it in over a decade, pick it up and watch it again. If you just watched it, watch it again. I guarantee there is something here you have not seen before. Or, it can be worth it just to see Emil doing his Toxic Avenger impression.