Paul Verhoeven doesn’t know the meaning of the word nuance, and Robocop provides at least the opening arguments for why the world is a better place for it. Brash and brutal in its own quintessentially ’80s way, Robocop also chomps at the bit to lose itself to the royal flush of political satire that stamps out the dark heart of ’80s consumerist ultra-violence and the evils of capitalism with gusto and flair. Under its sleek, brawny hood lies a personality-surfeit aimed squarely at other ’80s action films. But the film never lowers itself to the tiredness of irony, instead opting for a sort of loving critique of action cinema that plays with its inadequacies and idiocies by exaggerating them and acknowledging that an anti-action film would be a hypocrisy most foul. When Truffaut claimed that any war film that wanted to hate war was dishonest because a war film innately positioned war as a form of excitement, the same could be said to apply to action cinema. Thus, while Robocop gets entangled in its conglomerate mass of neo-fascism and broad-sword crypto-leftism, it’s always glad to exist, always happy to be a film we’re watching, and never per-se anti-action … even if its political message chastising media violence considered along with the fact of its own hyper-violence may not be the most easily reconcilable tension in the film world.
This 1987 action extravaganza hones its reticle in on Alex Murphy (Peter Weller), a New Detroit cop in a struggling city torn to pieces by crime and a corporate system of privatization wholly uninterested in the well-being of people who aren’t as wealthy as its corporate masters. One day, he is killed on duty by a particularly nasty goon Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith), convenient enough for local OCP rising star Robert Morton (Miguel Ferrer), who uses Murphy’s body to fill the space of his Robocop program to mechanize the police force that his company is in the process of privatizing. OCP second in command Richard Jones (Ronny Cox) doesn’t much help things along, wanting instead to implement his own abusive, fascist mechanized police force that indiscriminately kills without conscience. It is in his interest for Robocop to fail so his program can live.
At some level, this is the basis of a rather sharp critique of ’80s corporatism and its cut-throat, barbed individualist elitism less interested in fellow humanity than in making a dollar. For the most part, it holds up, especially in individual scenes like the opening gambit where Jones’ ED-209 machine kills a corporate executive accidentally and no one seems much to care. In the bigger picture, it seems decidedly less liberal and a bit more confused. First of all, it never really actually has any semblance of concern or care – or even knowledge – of the collective underprivileged at all, essentially dismissing them from the film. Secondly, its view of crime itself is of the distinctly ’80s cartoonish variety, so none of the criminals are explored as potentially good people torn apart by poverty.
The film certainly hits with its phony commercials that ape and mirror the language of ’80s American commercials note-perfectly, and its critique of cutthroat ’80s corporate culture is pretty perfect. But it still can’t find it in its heart to suggest any means of solving problems besides get-tough-on-crime fascism in the first place, and that is where its viability as action cinema comes in tension with its desire to critique corporate violence and privatization (this was still a time when the police force was considered a golden choir boy’s chorus in the film world, and the film’s view of them outside of their corporate masters is unanimously sterling). The fact is it loves shooting people and seeing heads explode, and at some level, it has trouble finding solutions for problems that don’t involve heads exploding. And if its actually a leftist critique, that’s probably an issue it refuses to admit.
This aside (and we’re not leaving the satire alone fully yet), what’s really surprising today is how sharp and cutting the film is when wholly divorced from the satire. Even from the opening minutes, we’re treated to a biting little news cast that patently recreates the world of the ’80s less as reality than as a self-conscious reflection of the idea of the 1980s, thereby setting up a work that not only mocks its time period but recreates it more startlingly than anything more openly realistic could. From there, we enter into an embattled Detroit police station and learn everything about its current state not from the screenwriter’s whipping boy of dialogue but from Verhoeven’s piercingly effective craftsmanship: the density and clutter of the location filled with bystanders suggesting the over-worked police force right from the first non-news-force shot of the film, the moving camera hurtling to convey the sweaty, ever-moving nature of being a police officer in this vision of Detroit, the people and officers themselves positioned less as an orderly huddle than a congealed, angular mass threatening itself and with no clarity and unity of vision. Sharp stuff, and we’re only two minutes in.
The presentation of Robocop himself is also always nuanced and reflective, giving him a certain monotonous metallic sheen and a detached camera to suggest his shell of a personality, whilst also slowly revealing smaller nuances like how he tilts his head in certain situations to reflect a befuddlement at his situation. Ultimately, it reveals what semblance of a human soul lies in wait within just desperately daring to burst out. Even early on before Robocop itself exists, Murphy is essayed as an everyday jackass with a soul with slight gestures that hint at the work of a great storyteller (Verhoeven in this case, along with co-screenwriter Edward Neumeier this time around). In fact, this sharp storytelling is proved when the final product lacks even one ounce of fat, and every single scene is neither too long nor too short. And when the film nails its mean-spirited, sadistic groove as darker than dark satire time and time again. And when the montage of Murphy losing his life emphasizes gnarly grit straight out of midnight cinema and cuts to the mysterious build-up of his reveal as Robocop in POV to give us a sense of the Robocop without ever revealing it as such in full until the end. In fact, “time and time again” is how often the film reminds how great it really is. It’s no Die Hard or The Terminator as far as structurally perfect action screenplays matched to filmmaking of the gods, but its about as brilliant a B-tier ’80s action film as you could imagine.
This is to say nothing of the action direction, which again can’t quite match the likes of a Die Hard from one year later or The Terminator from three years prior for grimy, razor-sharp direction and deliriously good editing (by Frank Urioste, who may just be best in show and was unsurprisingly taken up for Die Hard not soon afterwards). This is some seriously sharp filmmaking, prefacing the ever-moving camera philosophy of later works to draw us into the action as a propulsive unit and to explore space as a playground for high-impact, restless, tactile violence. Even the non-action scenes are directed with the eye of someone who clearly loves their job, especially when Robocop himself is on screen. Clearly Verhoeven loves his titular creature, and he’s here to have as much fun with him as possible.
Which brings us to another important reality: Robocop is an action adventure primarily and a satire second, and as sharp as its satire is, Verhoeven still clearly enjoys the violence he makes play with throughout. It’s not a satire that hates action cinema, but one that loves it, and it clearly wants to poke holes in the action genre because its part of the club. It’s making fun of its friends, in other words, and as anyone who’s ever had a friend knows, there’s no more fun to be had in the world than to make fun of them. Thankfully, for Robocop’s sake, and cinema’s, Verhoeven knows a good joke when he sees it. Whether it’s politically excusable is another question entirely, but that question applies wholesale to just about any action film ever made. If you are someone who can appreciate an action film, likely a prerequisite for reading a review of Robocop on the internet in the first place, then Robocop has you in good, high-camp hands. If you’re someone who wants your leftism to be, you know, genuinely leftist, then you’ll have to know which side the coin falls for you and decide for yourself.