Since my recent viewing of the TERMINATOR trilogy was a smashing success I decided to look for some other ’80s-’90s sci-fi/action robot trilogy to watch, and I came up with ROBOCOP. I’d seen the first one a million (1,000,000) times and never seen the sequels, but I had a pretty good idea it was not gonna be pretty. And it wasn’t.
To me the real trilogy is not ROBOCOP 1-3, it’s ROBOCOP, TOTAL RECALL and then STARSHIP TROOPERS, Paul Verhoeven’s three ultraviolent, FX heavy studio sci-fi action satires. ROBOCOP started off that trilogy with a bang, and even including those other Verhoeven classics there’s really nothing quite like this one. Its unique approach is established at the very beginning when it opens with a TV newsbreak (co-anchored by Leeza Gibbons) that’s a weird hybrid of news from the ’80s and from today. We learn alot from the TVs in this movie: the world is in chaos, with wars and rebel attacks a regular part of life, deadly fires caused by a laser misfire of “The Star Wars Global Peace Platform” in space, but there’s a nuclear war themed game you can buy and a really good artificial heart (is a surgery ad really that different from the prescription drug ads we already have?) and a popular comedy where a dude always says “I’ll buy that for a dollar!” and everybody laughs. They really capture the feel of the ’80s and the 2000s, that it’s a crazy fuckin nightmare but everybody’s used to it and doesn’t care. This movie predicted everything but Paris Hilton. They weren’t too far off predicting what police cars would look like (those things looked futuristic in 1987, now they just look the wrong color) and there’s even a DVD in this movie when the villain, Clarence Boddicker, storms into a penthouse, pulls out what at that time appeared to be a CD, and plays a video from it.
In fact I think it’s mainly the details of this world that make the movie work so well. The movie seems more dated than some of the other classics of the era, some of it is a little cheesy and although I still like the stop motion animation of the ED-209 that was so cool at the time I’m sure kids now would laugh at it. But as much as the ideas of the future come out of the ’80s they still seem believable. I mean, I bet these corporate executives really do have stock tickers above their urinals. And the guy making a speech in front of a bank of monitors showing animated corporate logos and footage of war planes doesn’t seem that exaggerated anymore.
Into this futuristic world they put a very classic sort of Frankenstein story. Peter Weller is Murphy, a cop new to Detroit who gets killed on duty (in fact completely fuckin massacred) and they use what’s left of him to control this new cyborg police officer that Omni Consumer Products is developing. Of course he never realized he volunteered for this sort of thing, but it’s standard in the police officer’s contract. We see alot of the building of Robocop from his perspective, like we’re half awake during surgery. So we know they managed to recover one of his arms but OCP had them get rid of it because to them robotic would be better. And we know he knows this. His builders are oblivious to his humanity, they don’t even notice when his bad dreams start showing up on their TV monitors, and they are completely surprised when he gets up and walks away.
The action and comedy of the movie are pretty simple, it’s basically your usual cop story but exaggerated. Robo remembers the gang who killed him and goes after them. The violence from both sides is heightened so the criminals get ahold of a powerful new gun that can blow up a car with one shot, and they walk around the streets laughing and shooting cars for fun. A rapist is shot in the balls, a gas station blows up around Robo, a guy gets melted by toxic waste, a woman tries to hug Robocop and it’s awkward. Robo goes after a guy in a dance club and when he knocks the gun out of his hand somebody else catches it and just dances with it.
The heart of the movie is Nancy Allen as his partner Lewis, the only person who recognizes Murphy inside there and tries to get him to remember who he is. And of course his flashbacks to his old life. The poor bastard. Throughout the movie he slowly reclaims that little chunk of human flesh at the top of his robotic body. He takes off his visor, revealing his face, and the very last scene is him saying his name is Murphy and then it cuts to the title, the credits and the glorious theme by the late great Basil Pouledaris.
Wow, I just realized ROBOCOP turned twenty last month. It’s old enough to sneak into clubs and to get a cheesy back tattoo. I’m not gonna say it’s perfect like I recently said about ALIENS, but as a fun and well told action movie I think it holds up about 90%. Verhoeven’s direction is so clever and dramatic the way he stages the creation of Robocop with all the POV shots and not showing what he looks like at first and showing the shocked reactions of the other cops. And there is this whole world, not just the corporate culture I mentioned before but also the rough life of the police officers, with the looming threat of a strike. And Verhoeven threw in the co-ed shower concept he also used ten years later in STARSHIP TROOPERS.
(Speaking of the cops in this movie, the character Johnson played by Felton Perry is the one actor besides Nancy Allen who returns in all three movies. I thought he looked real familiar and when I looked him up sure enough he was Dirty Harry’s partner Early in MAGNUM FORCE as well as Buford Pusser’s partner Obra in WALKING TALL. So this guy has a great record of movie police work. He should get a medal. I apologize for not remembering who he was.)
After he becomes Robocop and you get used to him the story and characters seem pretty simple, especially after you’ve seen it as many times as I have. And some of the settings look pretty cheap. But there are a bunch of memorable sequences like Robo’s fight with ED-209 (foiled because he can’t walk down stairs) and getting shot up by the other cops and having to flee, and finally the showdown in the board room, the perfect place to end this shit.
Some of the story gets a little stale after watching it over and over but the details of the world, the dark sense of humor and that pure Verhoeven tone make it hard not to love. It’s a genuine classic.
It’s easy to see why they thought you could make good ROBOCOP sequels. It was such an interesting world and concept, and done fairly cheap, why not expand on it? Unfortunately the sequels are missing two major things that made the original great – 1: a focus on the character of Murphy and how he becomes Robocop and 2: the crazy fuckin madman Paul Verhoeven.
ROBOCOP 2 is worth watching because it’s full of great ideas. There’s a funny opening scene where you hear that the police went through with their strike and then it pans across a series of intersecting crimes. Later Robo is in a faceoff with an armed little boy who says “Can’t shoot a kid, can you, fucker?” and shoots him. This turns out to be the leader of the drug gang. There’s also an entire little league team, in uniform, led by their coach, who rob a store. (a one-up of the Baseball Furies.) The new model of cyborg is made from a cult leader/drug gang leader so it turns out to be a junkie robot and, like the movie itself, it’s called Robocop 2. When they’re building it there’s a great scene where the dead guy’s brain and eyeballs are in a jar and you see through their POV watching doctors have a conversation while casually holding his hollowed out head. Also, Detroit owes OCP so much money there’s a hostile takeover and the city becomes corporate owned.
The original script was by Frank Miller, the comic book guy who did SIN CITY and supposedly influenced the original ROBOCOP. So he has all kinds of these great over-the-top ideas but either he didn’t know how to sculpt them into a movie or the guy who rewrote it fucked it up or maybe the director blew it. It’s Irvin Kershner (director of STAR WARS 2, cameo in ON DEADLY GROUND) but his direction here gets cheesier and broader than Verhoeven’s. There are characters that just don’t work, like the mayor who seems too young to be mayor, too much of an over-actor to be in this movie, not funny enough for how funny he seems to think he is, and then he makes matters worse by making outraged speeches about what’s going on. Verhoeven trusted the audience to understand what an ugly world this was, this movie has to have speeches to explain it to you in case you’re an idiot.
If you ask me the very best thing about ROBOCOP 2 is a great scene where you find out that because of his memories of his family before he died Murphy has been sort of stalking his wife and kid. He has been driving by the house and spying on them. We learn this when some pricks from the company sit him down and lecture him about scaring her and try to get him to say that he is a machine. For most of the scene the camera is close on Peter Weller’s face, without its visor, disgustingly attached to a robot head. It’s hard to really make out his emotions there, he definitely looks sad and a little like he got caught with his hand in the cookie jar, and sort of like he doesn’t want them to know his emotions. Whatever it is it’s tragic.
But then they barely follow up on this great idea other than a few token appearances by the saintly wife not aware of what he’s going through and convinced that the machine is not Murphy. And the movie spends so much time on the junkie criminal becoming Robocop 2 and the corporate bitch who arranges the whole thing and various other subplots that Robo never gets enough focus. It’s like so many failed genre movies of the time, it seems more like a list of ideas they had than an actual story unfolding. There are good bits here and there but you don’t feel like you’re going anywhere and you’re just happy when it ends.
ROBOCOP 3 should probaly be called HELLO, WE DIDN’T GET THE FIRST ROBOCOP AT ALL, THAT’S WHY WE MADE THIS UNWATCHABLE PILE OF HORSE SHIT. Pretty much from beginning to end it is clear that everything I liked about ROBOCOP, anyway, went soaring over these people’s heads.
First of all, this is a PG-13 movie. ROBOCOP was a movie that deliberately went too far with its violence. Verhoeven wanted to take the glorified violence of American action movies to its logical conclusion. By part 3 the violence is not trying to shock you, it’s trying to be appropriate for children. It’s a bad comic book. Kids liked the first one, even though it was for adults, so now they just figure they should make the kind of crap they imagine kids probaly like. Maybe they should do that with KILL BILL next. Or FRIDAY THE 13th. When parents allowed their kids to see these movies it was understood as an agreement that for the sequels they just want to stay home and let their kids go by themselves.
In fact, this movie starts out with a little girl who you know loves Robocop because she has a doll of him. The real Robocop doesn’t even show up until 15 minutes in. Actually, it’s not even the real Robocop because they couldn’t get Peter Weller to come back. They couldn’t even get the animatronic Peter Weller head from part 2 to come back, it wanted script approval. Hell, they couldn’t even get Leeza Gibbons to come back. Even Leeza must’ve said what the fuck are you clowns doing? This crap is supposed to be fuckin Robocop!?
In ROBOCOP Murphy was basically Frankenstein’s monster. But in part 3 here, he utterly fails to throw the little girl in the water and drown her. She lasts throughout the movie. Verhoeven’s Robocop was a guy who went too far, the idea was that a robotic cop is a bad idea, it’s supposed to make you uncomfortable. But sort of in part 2 and definitely in part 3 you are just supposed to think that’s cool, a robot who shoots everybody! And now he can fly. Instead of being one of the few people with a heart left in a cruel world he is part of a literally underground team of earnest multi-cultural rebels.
One thing that’s kind of weird, they have quite a cast of future TV all stars. Rip Torn (Larry Sanders Show) is the CEO of OCP. Bradley Whitford (the West Wing) is one of his top guys. Stephen Root (NewsRadio, King of the Hill) is one of the rebels, so are CCH Pounder (The Shield) and Jill Hennessy (Crossing Jordan). And Jeff Garlin (Curb Your Enthusiasm) is the guy working at the donut shop where all the cops hang out. There might be some other people I didn’t recognize. It’s good that these people were in here because it creates a curiosity factor, you can play a spot the up and coming TV actors game to occupy your time until the damn thing ends.
Everything about these movies devolves over the three, from the skill of storytelling to the depth of character to the quality of the production design to the level of violence. The one and only thing that grows throughout the trilogy is Lewis’s hair. It gets longer in part 2 and longest in part 3. That is the extent of the journey that this series will take you on.
I didn’t think part 2 worked, but I can list plenty of things I liked about it. Unfortunately that’s not the case with this one. It’s not only the guy playing Robocop who’s been replaced, it’s also the whole spirit and attitude of the original movie. Instead of extrapolating a future to say something about what’s going on in the world today they just look for “fun” comic book concepts of silly things that could happen in a phony kid’s comic book future. Instead of exaggerating the violence to make a point about our attitudes about violence in movies they intentionally tone down the violence to be appropriate for kids. Robocop is now no different from TJ LAZER, the show his kid watched on TV in the first movie.
I mean go back to part 1 and look at that classic board room scene where a demonstration of ED-209 goes awry. A volunteer is chosen to hold a gun and the robot tells him to put it down. He does, but the robot keeps counting down: “YOU HAVE TEN SECONDS TO COMPLY…” The thing doesn’t work, it thinks he still has the gun, so it fills him with literally hundreds of bullets. The body falls on the table and it just keeps firing its machine guns into him, it’s a fuckin mess. Even twenty years later that scene is hilariously brutal and eerily believable. I mean if they really had these robots, I believe this would happen.
In that scene the OCP boss is pissed. Not because one of his guys is dead. Not because he is liable for this accidental death. He’s mad because this is gonna cause delays that will cost the company millions of dollars. That’s the Verhoeven way. He paints a portrait of this ugly world and what makes it true is that everyone goes along with it. Life really is ugly and people really are okay with it.
But if the ED-209 incident was in ROBOCOP 3 there would be someone there with a conscience who would point out how bad it is. “Are you crazy? How can you be talking about money? A man just died!” ROBOCOP 3, you just don’t get it, man.
You know what, I’m gonna cap this all off by getting poetical on your ass. ROBOCOP is just like Robocop himself: a slick, deadly machine with a small piece of human struggling to keep it under control and to be noticed from inside. ROBOCOP 2 is like Robocop 2: a junkie robot. Maybe you met him at a bus station or something. He kept rambling and you have to admit he came up with some pretty interesting things to say here and there but it was all jumbled and ultimately lost you. And then ROBOCOP 3 is like that guy who is not Peter Weller playing Robocop. He’s wearing the suit but nobody’s gonna confuse him for Robocop. He hangs out on Hollywood Boulevard and he lets you take your picture with him and then he tries to guilt you into giving him money. Just tell him to have a nice day and then take off. He’ll keep talking but do not engage, just pretend you don’t hear him.
Actually, I got one last thing. At this time I would like to request that any soul-less movie studio executives please stop reading. Go check the stock reports or something. The following material is not for your eyes. I am going to have to go with the honor system but please stop reading. If you keep reading and then this gives you the idea to do a certain thing I am discussing here but you fuck it up then that constitutes a contract wherein you agree to give me 50% of all profits from said mistake. So you better stop reading. thanks fellas I appreciate it. Last chance.
Okay, here goes nothing. I know this is asking for it, but I think ROBOCOP is a perfect candidate for a remake. The only problem is that I can’t think of anybody I’d want to do it besides Verhoeven himself. If they did it they’d probaly get some chump who didn’t get what Verhoeven was doing and would just try to make a robot movie with digital age effects. But if Verhoeven went back to this idea from a modern perspective it could be a god damn masterpiece.
I mean think about it: when ROBOCOP came out Rodney King and the LA riots had not even happened. Let alone OJ Simpson, Amadou Diallo, the various police brutality incidents that inspired DO THE RIGHT THING, the ATF siege at Waco, the “Free Speech Zones” that started with the WTO riots and flourished through the Bush era. The militarization of the police force shown in Robocop doesn’t seem futuristic anymore, they really do wear armor now and carry more weapons and occasionally they drive tanks through city streets. I want to see a Robocop movie for the modern age, one that addresses the racial issues of modern policing, the PATRIOT Act, the drug war and the police being turned against citizens at protests. I want to see a ROBOCOP for the Halliburton era, with Mediabreaks for the post 9-11 landscape.
Somebody told me a few years ago that Verhoeven wanted to do another ROBOCOP, but only if he could call it ROBOCOP 2. Doesn’t sound very official to me but shit, give him a greenlight. It could be magic.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.