‘Robocop’ – the future of law enforcement on Max

A mix of science fiction, heavy metal action, and darkly, savagely satirical humor, Robocop (1987) is set in a near-future Detroit. Street crime overwhelms the city and the under-resourced police department has been privatized by Omni Consumer production, a soulless megacorporation that runs city services like a factory, complete with downsizing and cost cutting.

Their plan is to replace the human officers with armed and deadly robots, notably the Ed-209 project—a walking tank with military hardware. When it hits a rather alarming glitch, a new program is fast-tracked by an ambitious junior executive (Miguel Ferrer) eager to climb the corporate ladder. Peter Weller stars as Murphy, the good cop killed in the line of duty and turned into the corporate Frankenstein’s monster: “Part man, part machine, all cop,” as the poster tagline went. Reanimated with the help of computer circuitry, robotic limbs, and bulletproof armor, the inaugural Robocop is built around his corpse, or rather that’s left after being ambushed by a sadistic, bloodthirsty gang that thrives on overkill.

Overkill also describes the approach of director Paul Verhoeven, a Dutch filmmaker making his American film debut. The opening demonstration of the Ed-209 prototype is a literal bloodbath, so absurdly violent and over-the-top it tips over from horror to dark slapstick, and bodies blow up and spatter across the screen through the film. Verhoeven pushed the violence to such cartoonish extremes that he repeatedly clashed with the MPAA to finally get an R-rating. The bloody overkill was later restored for an unrated director’s cut on home video.

Given such excess, the calm, commanding, deliberate efforts of Robocop to use the most direct and efficient means to stop crime in its tracks is a model of restraint. That strength is, in the eyes of OCP senior executive Dick Jones (Ronnie Cox as a corrupt corporate pirate), an economic failure threatening the real profits: cost overruns, spare parts, and a cut on the drug and prostitution money around the new construction sites.

Weller’s face is almost completely covered by a shell of a helmet but his body language makes his creation both unstoppable force and immovable object, while the smallest of gestures and the hint of expression in his mouth reveals the ghost in the shell; a cyborg haunted by memories of the man under the armor.

Under the science fiction premise and action spectacle is a barbed satire of corporate corruption, economic downsizing, the privatization of public services, and the militarization of law enforcement. The savagely funny satire of modern capitalism in the Reaganomics era hasn’t lost its edge over the years. Verhoeven’s stylish satire manages to be funny and intelligent amidst the carnage and, technological advances aside, it feels all the more relevant to today’s world of AI and consumer drones and military firepower in civilian hands.

There were two big screen sequels (both co-written by graphic novel legend Frank Miller), a disappointing remake, and short-lived attempts to bring the franchise to the small screen. None of them come close to the intelligence or the mix of dark wit and social satire of the original.

Nancy Allen plays Murphy’s former partner and Robocop’s new ally, Dan O’Herlihy is the company CEO, and Kurtwood Smith, Robert DoQui, Ray Wise, Felton Perry, and Paul McCrane co-star.

It won an Oscar for sound editing and five Saturn Awards from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films.

Read more on the film’s genesis and production at the TCM website.

Rated R

Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
Robocop: Special Edition Director’s Cut [Blu-ray]
Robocop: Director’s Cut [Blu-ray]
Robocop Trilogy [Blu-ray]
Robocop: Special Edition Director’s Cut [4K UHD]
Robocop [DVD]
Robocop Trilogy [DVD]

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Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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