Cult Film Club – Robocop

Welcome back everyone. Let’s talk about Robocop. Specifically, let’s talk about the 1987 Robocop, which, in the run up to the release of this year’s reboot, was essentially deified. It’s not uncommon for an original to be viewed very fondly in the year a reboot’s released but the vehement pushback against the 2014 movie was abnormally strong. Sufficiently strong, in fact, that one site was accused of taking bribes because they dared to like it.

I’ve been a film journalist since 1997 in various forms.

I got free coffee once.

I think there were donuts too.

That’s it.

So, either I’m really not attending the right parties or film criticism, oddly, is not a Godfather-esque den of iniquity and corruption.
Let’s face it, it’s probably both.

Anyway, I was sufficiently curious as to why the original was put on a pedestal that I rewatched it instead of Primer. That and the fact that if I watch Primer enough times in a year I can actually see maths. Anyway, it was an interesting experience both positive and negative because, when it comes to it, this is a film that’s beautifully designed, frequently brilliant and has some bits so horrifically clunky you actually wince.

Let’s start with the good stuff. The years have been very kind to Robocop in a couple of surprising ways, the first being its format. The satirical adverts scattered through the movie are actually funnier now we’re out from under the shoulder padded Hell of the Reagan and Thatcher years. Plus they, and news stories the orbital laser platform misfire add to the cyberpunk tone of the movie. This is 20 minutes into the future and if Max Headroom isn’t around the corner, that’s only because he’s busy presenting music videos from an ‘80s dystopian internet.

Secondly, the central arc of the thing is actually pretty great. The extra step that’s in place here, of OCP Bob elbowing himself to the front of the queue using the Robocop project, is especially good. Not only is it a perfect encapsulation of ‘I will tread on your neck so I can snort my coke better, PROLE’ yuppie excess, but it also couches the project in noticeably more embattled terms from the get go.

Here’s why; in the 2014 version, Robocop is basically an ipad with a gun. He’s a piece of desirable consumer electronics that’s positioned to exploit a legal loophole. So, in fact, he’s an ipad 1 with a gun. Were he an ipad 3 with a gun he would presumably need recharging by the time he’d lifted and aimed the gun. I can see the directives now:

1)Serve the Public Trust
2)Protect the Innocent
3)Uph-20% CHARGE REMAINING
4)-Clas-EMPTY BATTERY SIGN

Anyway, in the context of the 2014 version it really works. The ‘80s version though, works better, positioning Robocop as the destination rather than the justice-dispensing, gun toting Motorway Services on the way to Delta City. He’s a genuine quantum leap in technology and, weirdly, that covers a lot of the movie’s flaws. He moves clunkily because he’s new. He talks with a distorted voice because he’s new. Peter Weller plays the entire thing with emotional distance because he’s new. It’s not subtle but it does work.

Weirdly, the extra political context given the project in the reboot is fun but ultimately dilutes the issue. Here, the fact that Robocop is the result of a pissing contest between OCP Bob and Dick Jones works on two different levels. Firstly, the fact that he’s being actively targeted by the company that built him means there’s far more of a sense of danger than at any point in the reboot. Secondly, it also emphasizes the man in the machine. Alex Murphy arguably has the worst luck of any 1980s action hero, and Verhoeven and scriptwriter Ed Neumeier never let him off the hook. Murphy being killed is arguably the single merciful thing that happens to him. Everything that follows is essentially a cybernetic zombie who’s been lobotomized for maximum profit dispensing vastly disproportionate amounts of violent justice in order to uphold the artificial ideal of law and order that best serves his corporate masters.

Gunplay with interpretative dance subrotunes

Gunplay with interpretative dance subrotunes

I’d buy that for a dollar.

Let’s face it, Murphy’s story is just a cavalcade of horror and it’s interesting that Verhoeven and Neumeier’s bloody pantomime both accentuates and makes that horror impersonal. Robocop is justifiably regarded as one of the nastiest movies of its time and lives up that reputation every chance it gets. Murphy’s hideous murder is just the first stop on a ride that takes in guns that fire explosions, scrap metal being used as an offensive weapon, TOXICWASTETALITY! and the angriest USB stick in human history. In fact, how you view Murphy’s data spike is a perfect microcosm of how you’ll view the movie. It’ll either be a magnificent piece of chromed cyber satire or mindless excess, depending not only on where you’re standing but what mood you’re in. More importantly, with the emotional component at range and frequently covered in blood, Robocop becomes an exercise in style for much of its run time. Thankfully, that style is there in abundance but it’s used as a crutch as much as a flourish.

That brings us to the villains who are, to quote a colleague of mine, numerous and belligerent. They’ve also got Murphy and Lewis surrounded, coming at them from both the upper class boardrooms and the street. The street that is, by the way, apparently the same one the bad guys in Death Wish hang out on, but we’ll get to that.

First off, give it up for 1980s bad guy MVP, Mr Miguel Ferrer everybody! Ferrer never met a piece of scenery he didn’t find delicious and he’s on great form here. He doesn’t so much turn the volume up as yank the knob off and use it to snort coke. He’s a rampaging egotistical libido monster with absolute faith in his abilities and no ability at all to back it up. Ferrer’s OCP Bob is immense, shouty fun and the movie takes one of its few dips in quality when he’s offed.

As Dick Jones, Ronny Cox more than takes up the slack. This is, with the benefit of hindsight, a surprisingly astute piece of writing and acting. Jones is a sly old hoss, a corporate operator whose eye is as much on the bottom line as it is on the focus groups. He’s a safe pair of hands, wanting to keep the company just corrupt enough and his opposition to Robocop is essentially based in that conservatism. He’s an untried, untested product and, more importantly, one put forward by a rival. Even worse, he’s affecting the bottom line which is being driven by the growing anarchy in the city. Where Bob wants change now, Dick wants change once the cheque clears and wants to make sure the cheque is made out to him. He’s a surprisingly nuanced, amoral figure and, a couple of decades out, looks almost prescient in some of his choices.
And then there’s the other bad guys.

That ‘70s Show Dad! Leland Palmer! Rocket Romano! The League of Ethnic Stereotypes! Assemble!

That 70s Show Dad is BUSTED

That 70s Show Dad is BUSTED

The non-Ferrer and Cox villains in Robocop have not one but three acting powerhouses amongst them. Kurtwood Smith has cornered the market in square-foreheaded grumpy men for close to three decades whilst Ray Wise is best known as an embodiment of pure evil, both in the magnificently demented Twin Peaks and Reaper, where he was a wonderfully chipper Devil. Paul McCrane, best known as the helicopter-fearing Romano in ER, has had just as impressive a career, appearing in basically every major TV show of the last few decades. These three men know how to act, know how to bring natural authority to their roles and know how to hold your attention.

Their characters in Robocop are as follows: grumpy psychopath, dapper criminal, criminal with beard.

Oh and Rocket Romano gets melted to death by a vat of toxic waste and bursts across That ‘70s Show Dad’s windscreen in the closing fight. So there’s that.

Criminal with beard has the worst day EVER

Criminal with beard has the worst day EVER

There are also other members of their gang, all of whom appear to have fallen out of a hole in time from a Death Wish movie. None of them have any character to speak of unless you consider ‘Unpleasant racial stereotype’, ‘mildly rapey’ and ‘likes money and killing people’ to be actual character traits. They’re all dull, they’re all pretty offensive and they’re all ultimately in the movie to do little more than jump in front of one of Murphy’s bullets. Viewing Robocop now, they take up too much screen time. Viewing Robocop then, they fitted in just fine. They’re immensely broad, crushingly unsubtle and ultimately only really work once. Their arrival at the steel mill for the closing fight is genuinely intimidating. Walking down one of the central drives, ridiculous cannons out, they look genuinely threatening. As characters they’re a disaster, but as plot components with lines of dialogue? They do okay. Just.

That’s, ultimately, what gets the 1987 Robocop through. Bits of it really don’t work, and looking back, didn’t at the time. Almost all the characters are broad strokes over and above what’s normally needed for satire and the script uses both violence and profanity as punctuation so much you half suspect Denis Leary did a last minute polish. Likewise, the reason I’ve not talked about Lewis, Murphy’s partner, is that there’s literally nothing to say. She’s dutiful and tough but somehow completely useless almost every time Murphy needs to be rescued. Not the sort of female lead a movie like this, or an actress like Nancy Allan, deserves, but it’s what they both got.

And yet, the whole thing is shot through with this relentless, wild-eyed enthusiasm that just carries it along. It’s a little like being talked at by a slightly disturbing friend for two hours and it means the default level of fun never drops below ‘pretty’. It’s a particularly interesting watch after the reboot too which is itself very good fun, just in a different way. The new version is a surprisingly clear eyed look at drone technology and the politicisation of the Singularity. The original has Buckaroo Banzai stabbing That 70’s Show Dad in the neck with his data spike. If that sentence made you clap, then it’s definitely a movie worth revisiting. If it didn’t, you’ll always have the newer model. Just remember to charge it before asking it to aim its gun.

So that’s me for another month. Come back in April when I swear, Hand to God, we’ll get to Primer. Maybe. If we haven’t already. More than once…

See you then.

Reporter: Alasdair Stewart

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One comment

  1. Good job. I was at the original when it premiered – what I got at the time was the first 80s action movie I genuinely liked, because it was absurdly horrific in its violence and committed to its violent comic book aesthetic – there had been few things like it at the time (save the HEAVY METAL animated film), especially purporting to be an “action film”. It was a broad, violent, surprisingly funny sci-fi comic book come to life – which is really what any reflection of the excesses of the 1980’s deserved! The goons have no character because it is a comic book and they are fodder – the film doesn’t take place in a world so real that they have stories you’d care about. ROBOCOP is exactly the film it needed to be, nothing more or less (and, as that, really needed no sequel/s, let alone a TV series and comic book cross-overs). The toxic waste death is a perfect example – completely OTT, very Troma, yet encapsulated in the violent goofiness of the film’s tone. In a sense, it’s a hidden JUDGE DREDD film, tone wise.

    I could mention, for perspective, that the memory I hold closest of footage from the film is waiting in a small club in NYC for Thomas Dolby to start playing and they showed edited clips of ROBOCOP to keep up entertained.

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