By Richard Winters
My Rating: 8 out of 10
4-Word Review: Cop becomes a robot.
In Detroit of the near future the city has become overrun with criminals and an underfunded city government is forced to allow a large corporation by the name of OCP to help run its police force. The company is headed by Dick Jones (Ronny Cox) and their chairman (Dan O’Herlihy) who are constantly looking for new and more sophisticated crime fighting weapons and come up with the idea of creating a half human half robot type cyborg using the body parts of a recently deceased officer named Alex J. Murphy (Peter Weller). Initially it’s a great success, but the robot starts to have memories of Alex’s past and becomes fixated with hunting down the scumbags who killed him while avoiding Jones and his men who want to destroy the robot so Jones’s own invention the ED-209 can replace him.
When compared to other big-budgeted studio action flicks this one far and away outshines them all. Director Paul Verhoeven seemed to be given an amazing amount of freedom to create a film with a distinct vision that manages to be both exciting and multi-dimensional. The final shootout at an abandoned steel mill has a particularly nihilistic look and feel more common in European films. The jabs of satirical humor also make this much more enjoyable and entertaining than the run-of-the-mill actioner. My favorite bits included the commercial advertising the family board game call ‘Nukem’ and the outrageous demands of a gunman holding up the mayor’s office as well as the overnight gas station attendant working on geometry problems.
The action is quite good and the film manages to attain a fluid level that allows the graphic violence to work in tandem with the offbeat touches while not being jarring or disjointed. The special effects were decent although the ED-209 robot looks too much like one of those Ray Harryhausen stop-action creations that was clearly a miniaturized model blown up to giant proportions by optical effects. The result is a bit cheesy by today’s standards although the part where the machine is chasing Robocop and slips down a flight of stairs and then lays on its backside while flailing its legs in the air like a wailing child is quite possibly the film’s best moment.
There is also a rather prolonged torture segment where a criminal gang led by Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith) traps Murphy in a steel mill and proceeds to shoot off his arm and hand while laughing at him as he screams in pain. Despite its unsettling nature I liked that this scene was put in as too many times Hollywood takes on dark themed stories, but then makes them tasteful and mainstream. This scene breaks that mold while truly reflecting the vile nature of the people and the world that they live in. It allows vicious characters to be nasty without it having to be implied and shocks the viewer a bit out of their comfort zone, which a true nihilistic movie should do.
The only problem that I had with the scene is that after taunting Murphy and blowing off his limbs they end up shooting him in the head and effectively making him brain dead, which makes the scenes later on where he remembers his past and is even aware of the people who are turning him into a robot seem unrealistic. A better idea would have been to have the men just walk away laughing while allowing Murphy to remain conscious , which would have worked better with their already vindictive nature as shooting him in the head given the circumstances seemed too ‘humane’ like they were putting him out of his misery. It also would have kept his brain functioning and allowed the later segments to be more believable.
Star Weller is so covered up with the massive suit that he has to wear that he becomes transparent and making the bad guys much more colorful and memorable. The character needed more of a backstory and a few distinctive personality traits. I also felt that the history between his character and Officer Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen) should have been more than just one day on the job.
Miguel Ferrer captures the caricature of the young, upwardly mobile do-whatever-it-takes-to-get-ahead 80’s yuppie persona so well that he was one unlikable character I wished had stayed on for the entire duration. Smith who has become so well known in more benign roles in his later career really scores as a particularly vile bad guy.
My only real complaint is that the visuals were not all that futuristic looking. The police station resembled the one on the old ‘Barney Miller’ TV-show and the police cars looked very much like 80’s models. The remake of the film, which is set to be released today, may do a better job of creating more modernistic visuals.
My Rating: 8 out of 10
Released: July 17, 1987
Runtime: 1Hour 42Minutes
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Studio: Orion Pictures Corporation
Available: VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant Video
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Lots of gunfire; little sense or point.
Watched again recently in 4K. Still a classic. Pity about the sequels though.