Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
RoboCop is both the best and the most important Science Fiction film of the 1980s. The violent fantasy concept starts with material one might initially think was better suited for children, a robot-man who serves as an incorruptible and heroic policeman. But the thrills are too adult for kiddies and the emphasis is on wicked social and political satire. Audiences laughed uneasily as they realized that the joke was on them ... the American dream of peace and plenty came to an end as the U.S.A. became a corporate state. Overstated gore and dynamic comic-book action make RoboCop both funny and disturbing, like an exploitation film from fifteen years in the future that holds a mirror up to present trends. That's what Science Fiction does best. Audiences thrill as RoboCop prevails over criminals on the streets and in the boardrooms. But the film is even more prophetic when it warns us of the terrors of (gasp) privatization.
Detroit is beset by a wave of brutal crimes. The Omni Consumer Products Corporation steps into the breach offering to privatize the police force. OCP VP Dick Jones (Ronny Cox) has developed an 'urban pacification' robot called ED-209, but it has serious malfunction issues. 1 To fill the gap while the bugs are worked out, OCP's CEO "The Old Man" (Dan O'Herlihy) gives hot-shot junior executive Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer) the go-ahead on his competing RoboCop prototype program, which uses terminally-injured policeman Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) as the basis for a surgically-constructed part-man, part-machine cyborg. Programmed to be the perfect patrol officer, RoboCop's initial forays into the mean streets of Detroit are a remarkable success for OCP. Unforseen complications ensue. Spurred by contact with his former duty partner Officer Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen), the 'dead' Murphy's personality starts to reassert itself through memories of his lost family. Robo's investigations eventually lead him to suspect a connection between criminal gangleader Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith) and OCP's own Dick Jones.
RoboCop is really an inside-out remake of Fritz Lang's Metropolis: using high technology and Reaganomics, a corporate elite is rebuilding Detroit into a prototype for a futuristic city where big business can operate without limits or restraint. OCP's RoboCop is a superweapon in The War on Crime, which to the corporate bosses of OCP is a public relations stunt to grab more power. OCP takes economic control of Detroit by cutting funding to its police force and presenting itself as a better alternative. To frighten the citizenry into acquiescence, Dick Jones underwrites the criminal terror he's supposed to be eradicating.
Metropolis envisioned the ruler of its super-city as a financial Pharaoh, a one-man executive making dozens of decisions a minute. RoboCop proposes a wickedly accurate corporate 'old boy's club.' Ambition-hungry executives jockey for position and recognition, while O'Herlihy's supposedly benign "Old Man") pits them against each other to get results. With the stakes set so high, the competitors will murder each other to stay on top. RoboCop presents OCP as a criminal enterprise by contrasting it with real criminals and then erasing the distinction between them. Clarence Boddicker's outrageously brutal and sadistic gang runs free because they've been granted license by Dick Jones; they're 'softening up' Detroit so the public will consider OCP's tyranny a welcome relief. Laurence Olivier needed Spartacus to enable him to seize power in Rome, and George Bush needs ... you get the idea. Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner's script nails the raw greed of American corporate culture.
That's the overarching political satire in RoboCop, and none of it would work if the show weren't so well constructed and directed. Paul Verhoeven had gone off the deep end with his pointlessly grotesque Flesh + Blood but the politics of RoboCop gives him a constructive outlet for his violent fantasies -- after coming from Europe he was shocked to see just how gun-crazy America is. Alex Murphy is an epic hero in that he 'dies' and is resurrected, a rite often portrayed in myth as a journey to and from the underworld. Verhoeven claims that Murphy is sort of a Yankee Christ, agonizing at the hands of the Devil (Boddicker) and returning to even the kick ass ... in the penultimate scene, RoboCop 'walks on water.' Thanks to Basil Pouledoris' dynamic score, Robo is an intimidating metallic Golem when in pursuit of criminals: "Dead or alive, you're coming with me." Yet the score is stirringly emotional when Robo uses the remaining bit of his brain to remember his idyllic life with his wife and boy.
Paul Verhoeven's crisp style and Frank Urioste's slick editing express Robo's steamroller momentum when in crime prevention mode. Preprogrammed for any contingency, Robo confronts criminals and resolves problems without hesitation and with brutal efficiency. He also offers rape counseling to a distraught woman, and gives sober advice on television to admiring kids: "Stay out of trouble." RoboCop is a worthy original -- perhaps the best fantasy character since the heyday of the Universal monsters -- because he overcomes an agonizing death and personal tragedy to reassert himself as a human being. The crooks can't stop him, and neither can the malfunctioning "Made in America" ED-sel of a robot. And even if Robo can't take out Mr. Big, he has enough humanity to neutralize the worst of society's enemies.
Writer Ed Neumeier dotes on testosterone thrills ("Guns, guns GUNS!") and gross-out hyperbole, providing great material for every goon and gunsel in the script. Henchman Ray Wise foolishly tries to kick Robo in the crotch and the cocky Miguel Ferrer sneers in the face of poor police sergeant Robert DoQui. The hapless Paul McCrane gets a deliciously gross toxic-waste comeuppance, a scene that elicits the picture's biggest laugh. The film is interrupted by a number of highly prophetic video 'media breaks' with satrical TV commercials and cheerily depressing news anchors. But Neumeier also knows how to drive his political points home. The big action finale takes place in a newly abandoned steel mill, a gigantic edifice that might as well be an Egyptian construction, built for an unknown purpose. Corporate skyscrapers may flourish in the city's center but the grassroots American economy is collapsing all around.
Dick Jones' recorded video death message to Bob Morton plays on a CD-like disc ... ten years before DVDs were introduced.
MGM and Fox's disc of RoboCop, 20th Anniversary Edition presents both cuts of this modern classic in yet another special DVD. The enhanced transfers look to be the same good encodings as before, although some scenes still look a tiny bit flat and contrasty. I missed at least one earlier edition but have collected an old Image disc, a Criterion special edition and a three-disc box with RoboCop 2 and RoboCop 3. This two-disc set comes in an attractive metal box and recycles the extras from earlier MGM releases. Comparing menus reveals that the first disc with the theatrical cut carries all of the pre-existing extras (listed below), and the second disc wth the 'Extended Version' has the new attractions. The Extended Version is a cut of the film before its final MPAA approval that reinstates a number of 'overkill' moments of violence. On the commentary Verhoeven makes the case that the extra gore is actually less disturbing: it's so exaggerated, it's funny, the Herschel Gordon Lewis argument. We can tell that these filmmakers believe in what they're doing, as RoboCop could have easily have earned ten times its money if it were more family friendly. But then it wouldn't be the unique adult entertainment that it is.
The three new featurettes were produced a year ago by Laurel Parker. In Villains of Old Detroit actors Ray Wise, Kurtwood Smith, Ronny Cox and Miguel Ferrer talk about the joy of being on-set delinquents, and surviving the film's scary pyrotechnics. Paul Verhoeven, Michael Miner and Ed Neumeier add their comments as well. Special Effects Then and Now collects production designer William Sandell, matte painter Rocco Gioffre, designer Craig Hayes, and animator Phil Tippett. Gioffre gives us a good rundown of matte techniques and Tippett shows the old Ed-209 animation model, which keeps falling apart in his hands. All of them explain how effects have changed. Elaborate props and matte paintings have adapted to fit into the digital age but Tippett doesn't see a big future for stop-motion. In RoboCop: Creating a Legend Jon Davison, Peter Weller, Ed Neumeier, Paul Verhoeven, Kurtwood Smith, Ray Wise and Paul Sammon talk about the genesis of the Robo-suit, which was initially a big problem. Miguel Ferrer has some funny comments, and Michael Miner interestingly relates Robo to Dumas' The Man in the Iron Mask.
Tracks are provided in English and French, and subtitle choices are English and Spanish.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
RoboCop (20th Anniversary Edition) rates:
Supplements: DISC ONE: Commentary by Paul Verhoeven, Ed Neumeier and producer Jon Davison, Flesh and Steel docu by Jeffrey Schwarz, two contemporary promo featurettes, Storyboard with commentary by animator Phil Tippett, deleted scenes, photo gallery, two trailers, TV spot. DISC TWO: Featurettes Villains of Old Detroit, Special Effects Then and Now, RoboCop: Creating a Legend
Packaging: Two discs in Metallic case
Reviewed: August 26, 2007
1. ED-209 was once called SQUID-209. Does the ED refer to writer Ed Neumeier or is it a reference to Erectile Dysfunction?
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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