It wasn’t supposed to be this good. In the spring of 1987, theaters displayed life-sized cardboard cutouts of a cybernetic police officer glaring at you from the door of his cruiser with the tagline: Part man. Part machine. All cop. ROBOCOP. Even by late Reagan-era standards, this was an aggressive sell. For a generation raised on violent cheap thrills, Robocop looked like the kind of movie to see because it would be fun to laugh at something so bad. But Robocop got the last laugh, turning out to be a surprisingly well done bit of science-fiction action as well as one of the most biting and unexpected of subversive commentary flicks of the decade that had everybody shouting in agreement: I’ll buy that for a dollar!
The story takes place in Detroit, 2019, where urban decay and endless crime have turned much of the Motor City into a war zone. The absent city government has farmed out all police work to Omni Consumer Products, a megacorp which is running the cops so roughshod they are about to strike. It’s all part of a plan to roll out robotic super cops, of course, and before long, OCP gets its chance when a decent family guy named Murphy gets shotgunned in the line of duty. Declared dead, but legally OCP property, Murphy is turned into a 21 century Frankenstein’s monster, clad in armor, driven by a super computer, and possessing the strength and reflexes to take on any criminal. There’s just one problem. OCP is corrupt as hell, and Robocop still is haunted by the memories of his old human life that he just can’t shake. When his programming leads him to be declared an enemy of the company, what began as a machine with a set of directives becomes a man on a mission, reborn and rebooted and ready to serve the public trust, protect the innocent, and uphold the law.
For those who grew up in the 80s, Robocop became an instant addition to a canon of classic splatterhouse cinema, the kind of thing to be quoted endlessly, followed by regrettable sequels, merchandised haphazardly, and owned on VHS and then DVD and what the hell, even Blu-Ray some 30 years later. Because you know what? This movie kicks ass. There simply is no better way to put it. It somehow lives up both to the cheap drive-in nature of its premise, while also delivering some truly outstanding science fiction and action. Some of it is driven by excellent production standards. Some of it is driven by a cast of actors who give far more to this project than could be expected. The way people threw themselves into this one, you’d think there was an Oscar in it for somebody. Nope. Just an ultraviolent bit of near-future Euroshock, courtesy of some Dutch guy nobody had ever heard of.
Paul Verhoeven may have been a relative unknown to cineplex audiences at the time, but he was an accomplished director with a list of terrific films under his belt, and a talent for crafting stories that manage to subvert audience expectations all while winking at those who can see the inversion coming. And it’s this particular approach and tone that really is what makes Robocop special. Verhoeven knows how objectionable it is to fantasize about a cyborg cop with a license to kill or to glamorize a world that has revels in its own disintegration. But he wraps it so tightly in a comic book sensibility—at a time when nobody was making comic book movies yet—that we have no choice but to cheer as Robocop speaks in ASCII, hurls bad guys out of windows and shoots would-be rapists in the junk.
And, we have no choice but to laugh when Verhoeven turns the cameras on the audience a bit and peppers the story with fake newscasts and TV commercials to offer a glimpse into a dystopian world that really isn’t that far off from our own. Today, Robocop’s vision of a post-capitalist America on both crystal meth and steroids is so damned funny because it’s so damned true.
This movie is such a master class in tone that we cheer as Robocop blasts his way triumphantly through a drug factory, bullets harmlessly bouncing off his titanium skin, but mere minutes later, when the cops turn on him and shower him with just as many bullets doing just as little damage, we feel sorry for our hero. The last thing anybody ever expected out of this story was sympathy, but there we are, asking the screen to lay off of a guy who never asked to be turned into the kind of cop who carries a machine pistol but no handcuffs. Sure, the movie goes back to mutants exploding into green goo when hit by a car, but for a moment there, we just wish somebody in this movie would give Robocop a hug.
We get there courtesy of the movie’s moment of truth, during an early boardroom scene at OCP. Eager to roll out the company’s robotic police program, a ruthless executive has a hulking ED-209 tankbot stroll into a board meeting. This thing is clearly meant to destroy cities, not lecture jaywalkers, but whatever. To demonstrate its AI, an executive is instructed to take a gun and point it at ED-209. ED instantly orders the suit to drop the gun, but when the frightened executive complies, ED machine-guns the poor guy into red paste anyway. It’s gory and tragic and funny as hell because this movie isn’t content to tell us that life in Robocop is cheap. It cheapens it before our very eyes, a mission statement for a world that has declared moral bankruptcy. Thankfully, a robot named Murphy is there to remind us that we don’t all have to go along with it, and that some things shouldn’t ever go on sale. Human dignity is at the top of the list. The cops? Probably a close second.