Tooled from spare hardware—the trunk and limbs of a forklift, the rubberized joints of a vacuum cleaner, and the brain of a police officer—Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop character is a Terminator with the conscience of a constable, a Frankenstein gone cyberpunk.
Like the hero (or do you call him a humandroid?) of this violently entertaining comedy, RoboCop’s script is cobbled together with spare parts from everybody’s favorite myths and action movies. But in the hands of master craftsman Paul Verhoeven, the United States’ heartiest import since the tulip, these spare parts are customized and tuned into a wholly original urban satire set in late 1990s Detroit (home of Lee Iacocca Elementary School), a hallucinatory Notown that sees the Motor City the way that Blade Runner saw L.A.: future tense.
This future is a technological nightmare that all workers fear: Star Peter Weller, as the murdered officer who gets recycled into the half-man/half-machine of the film’s title, plays a supporting role to his character’s robotic armature. And the Detroit of the future, its mirror-and-steel skyscrapers reflecting crumbling, crime-ridden slums, is less metropolis than war zone. The city is in receivership. Local newsanchors chirp for ten seconds about a report on World War III while taking a full minute to pitch a game called “Nukem.” And meanwhile, the police force has been privatized by a conglomerate called OCP (OmniConsumer Products), which just might be a conflict of interest for one of its flinty execs, Jones (Ronny Cox), who happens to control the street gang that’s robbing half of the city while hooking the other half on cocaine.
Made in 1987 near the end of the Reagan Age, RoboCop gleefully satirizes The Great Communicator’s pet doctrines of free enterprise and privatization. In this script by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner, big business has gotten big because it makes huge profits first by creating a mess, then doubles profits by manufacturing the machine that will clean the mess up.
Yet, as the breakthrough American film by the Dutch director previously known for the erotic candor of Turkish Delight (1973) and The Fourth Man (1979), Verhoeven’s RoboCop is perhaps less interested in the screenwriters’ plot devices than he is in those of the mechanical kind. Though his acclaimed bam-bam pacing here would earn the director his future assignments on Total Recall (1990) and Basic Instinct (1992), initially Verhoeven didn’t think his leisurely, European rhythms would be suited for RoboCop.
In fact, he turned down the offer to direct the film until his wife, more attuned to the script’s subtext, explained to him that it was essentially a Frankenstein story—in her words—“That of the robot-man seeking his own life.” To get the pacing right on RoboCop, Verhoeven studied Rambo movies, and then added his own Euroflash camera moves (low-angle tracking shots that keep the action moving), and spectacularly breathed new life into Frankenstein’s lifeless body.
When a sadistic drug lord cheerfully blasts away the pistol hand and most of the vital organs of Detroit police officer Murphy (Weller) during an attempted drug bust, Murphy’s spare parts get recycled into the first RoboCop—half man, half machine—off the OCP assembly line. In trying to save money by using the preexisting “circuitry” of the human brain, OCP doesn’t bargain for the results: a cyborg with a human memory and ethics that might subvert corporate command.
At almost the exact moment that Murphy and his partner Lewis (Nancy Allen) are armpit-deep fighting subterranean slime, high up in the OCP corporate boardroom execs are fighting each other over whether RoboCop or all-machine ED 209 (ED being short for “Enforcement Droid”) would be the better investment. Jones favors ED 209; his slightly more humanitarian corporate adversary, Morton (Miguel Ferrer) favors RoboCop. One of the film’s satirical high points is ED 209’s demo: the circuitry in this hulking Gobot hasn’t been perfected and it accidentally kills an OCP vice-president. (How many other action flicks satirize big business, civic corruption, and American industrial failure?)
Thus OCP funds RoboCop. And soon RoboCop’s—or is it Murphy’s?—memory flickers into consciousness, enabling the enforcer to defy OCP and go on his own personal crusade. Like virtually every mad-scientist creation from Frankenstein to the telepod created by Jeff Goldblum in The Fly, RoboCop proves to have functions unplanned by his inventors.
With his tawny, seemingly airbrushed skin and those luxurious pillow lips, it seems a waste for Peter Weller to spend most of the film encased within RoboCop’s armature. But when RoboCop walks, like a toddler Godzilla, he gives Verhoeven’s film a herky-jerky humor that serves as an antidote for the bloodbaths accompanying the film’s violent clashes. RoboCop’s climactic showdown is where high-tech meets High Noon. Can the 200-pound, half-man/half-machine RoboCop triumph over the two-ton, 100% mechanical ED 209? Naturally, a gizmo with a human heart and mind must triumph over an elephantine circuit board. This confirms our notions of human superiority—and paves the way for the inevitable sequels.