May 18, 2010

Robocop Review

When it arrived on the big screen in 1987, Paul Verhoeven's RoboCop was like a high-voltage jolt of electricity, blending satire, thrills, and abundant violence with such energized gusto that audiences couldn't help feeling stunned and amazed. The movie was a huge hit, and has since earned enduring cult status as one of the seminal science fiction films of the 1980s.

Followed by two sequels, a TV series, and countless novels and comic books, this original RoboCop is still the best by far, largely due to the audacity and unbridled bloodlust of director Verhoeven. However, the reasons many enjoyed the film are also the reasons some will surely wish to avoid it. Critic Pauline Kael called the movie a dubious example of "gallows pulp," and there's no denying that its view of mankind is bleak, depraved, and graphically violent.

In the Detroit of the near future, a policeman (Peter Weller) is brutally gunned down by drug-dealing thugs and left for dead, but he survives (half of him, at least) and is integrated with state-of-the-art technology to become a half-robotic cop of the future, designed to revolutionize law enforcement. As RoboCop holds tight to his last remaining shred of humanity, he relentlessly pursues the criminals who "killed" him. All the while, Verhoeven (from a script by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner) injects this high-intensity tale with wickedly pointed humor and satire aimed at the men and media who cover a city out of control.

At the time of its release, Robocop was scoffed by critics who elected to evaluate the production based on its title and premise alone. However, those who watched the movie found it capable not only of generating the expected visceral reaction, but also being highly entertaining with it's story and characters. Robocop was a financial success for Orion Pictures, which subsequently made the unfortunate decision to move forward with a sequel. Verhoeven wisely did not return, instead turning his attention to work with Schwarzenegger in Total Recall (another crowning achievement in my opinion).

There's no denying that the film has become something of a science fiction landmark. Filled with intriguing concepts and prophetic ideas (the first appearance of a DVD, perhaps?), the film presents a future that's entirely plausible. Screenwriters Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner effectively establish this world as a believable one; this certainly isn't the sort of ideal utopian society as seen in other sci-fi works like 'Star Trek'.

The film marked Verhoeven's Hollywood debut, and it's hard not to be impressed by his audacious sense of style. He's never been known for his restraint, something that's particularly true here (and even more so in the unrated director's cut). He doesn't direct so much as he attacks, exposing audiences to things they never thought they'd see (ie Murphy's exploding hand).

Of course, it's impossible to talk about Robocop without discussing Weller's amazing performance. Weller is essentially playing two characters here - Alex Murphy and Robo himself - and the actor does a fantastic job of keeping them separate, while leaving enough of Murphy in Robocop to allow some of his humanity to occasionally seep through. It's really a testament to Weller's skill and commitment that we never question the presence of Robocop, despite the flashy costume and crazy one-liners.

And then there are the various villains, constantly stealing the spotlight from Robo and with good reason. The core trio of baddies - Ferrer's Bob Morton, Ronny Cox's Dick Jones, and Kurtwood Smith's Clarence Boddicker - are so fascinating and appropriately cast that it'd be easy to envision an entire movie built around each of them. The remarkable thing is that none of these actors were previously known for playing evil characters prior to Robocop. Verhoeven saw something in these performers indicating their proclivity towards portraying such vile figures.

The special effects work - particularly Phil Tippett's stop-motion animation and Rob Bottin's design of the Robocop suit - is flawless, contributing to the overall world as envisioned by Verhoeven. If you've never seen, go see it now!

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