The original RoboCop is a delight of an action film that boasts total mastery over its tone and intent from moment to moment. It knows when to be subtle and to be excessive. It knows when to be exciting, thought-provoking, or even heartbreaking. It revels in unsophisticated fun and at times becomes downright goofy, but the movie is always well aware of its purpose, which it simply keeps on expanding. It likely won’t appeal to viewers who shun depictions of intense violence (which are present even in the edited-for-television version, which was my only option at the time of reviewing this film), but moviegoers who can accept these gruesome yet exaggerated moments may indeed find themselves laughing.
The plot is surprisingly smart.
An opening broadcast shifts rapidly between black-comedy news and a rather silly medical advertisement before revealing that three Detroit cops have been killed, with one more in critical condition. The massive Omni Consumer Products (OCP) corporation is given the opportunity to run and fund the city’s police force–what could go wrong when justice has to answer to big business?–and the story itself begins from there, with a new possibility of cops going on strike. Officer Alex Murphy is a new transfer, and he soon meets his new partner, Anne Lewis. Her tough, take-charge worldview might seem evocative of Aliens, and as in that case, Lewis proves herself to be anything but a generic character.
While the two head out for Murphy’s orientation, the focus returns to the OCP firm, which is preparing to unveil the prototype Enforcement Droid Series 209. This unnervingly heavily armed robot is proposed as a reliable means of keeping the peace, as its parent research division wants an officer that replaces the need for food and sleep with superior reflexes and firepower. The reveal conference room is full of “yes men,” who clap enthusiastically at a speaker’s bullet points and then run away hilariously when the ED-209 walks toward them with its military-grade weapons permanently drawn.
One employee gets forced into volunteering to point a gun at the robot in order to simulate an arrest and disarmament, but when the robot doesn’t recognize its “suspect” throwing his gun down … well, let’s just say he dies very violently. So much for a reliable prototype! This brutally funny moment, one of the film’s most over-the-top and memorable scenes, does illustrate the dangers of demonstrating uncontrollable equipment in a live environment, which can be quite a wake-up call for viewers who have ever studied programming or engineering.
Not forgetting the other half of its title, RoboCop treats us to officers Lewis and Murphy tailing an armed robbery, which soon leads to a very enjoyable gunfight with few conspicuous special effects. It’s not too clever for its own good, and there are no explosions or car flips. With no backup immediately available, the officers pursue the criminals to an old mill and head in on foot.
The arrest soon goes wrong, and in one of the biggest mistakes the assailants make throughout the movie, they shoot Murphy again and again in a highly unpleasant sequence that really makes me question whether even this much editing makes this story suitable for anyone but adults. The officer is assumed dead as the shooters walk off, and Lewis takes the opportunity to get him to emergency care.
A new life, and a new body
(Did I overhear a doctor saying they were going to use a defibrillator against a patient whose cardiac rhythm had flatlined? I should get around to renewing my CPR/AED certification, but I’m pretty sure those devices don’t work that way.)
While receiving medical attention and being revived, Murphy’s life flashes before his eyes, ranging from idyllic family moments to the graphic events that ended that life. At the behest of OCP, the man is given a complete body prosthesis. One of his robotic arms is demonstrated before it’s attached, and the device is very nicely articulated. I don’t mind computer-generated effects when they look great, but this physically constructed limb looks amazing.
“RoboCop” awakes and is given a warm welcome; we see this through his eyes, and we’re given a rather neat demonstration of his features and enhancements, visual and otherwise. He has a tracking device, what’s left of his digestive system is very simple–he only needs a disgusting-looking paste for sustenance, which makes me thankful that even fast food generally looks better than that–and he can record people’s voices and play them back. RoboCop’s three primary directives are simple and logical: serve the public trust, protect the innocent, and uphold the law. (There is also a fourth…)
The newly created cyborg astonishes his fellow officers when he returns to duty and to weapons training, obliterating his makeshift targets in a thorough manner that calls that of the ED-209 to mind. He can even store his weapon in his robotic leg; it’s no wonder some of the officers express concerns about potentially being replaced. In a really nice touch, even if it desperately needs trigger discipline, Murphy retains enough of his memory to twirl his pistol in just the way that his child, who loved watching fictional cops on television, wanted him to do.
RoboCop is given plenty of opportunities to test out his new abilities, and a store robber who has the misfortune to run into this superpowered half-machine gets tossed aside like a toy. A crying woman is sexually assaulted by men who cut her hair off and attempt to do the same for her dress (for sensitive viewers, the perps don’t make much headway, and this scene is not played for laughs until after the woman is safe). These and other day-in-the-life scenes could quickly have become boring with such a powerful protagonist, but this film’s star has a charisma all his own, due to actor Peter Weller doing such a great job using rigid, limited movements to mimic a robot’s behavior. These eventually lead to an ongoing hostage situation that gets so much publicity that members of the news media, excited to photograph and question RoboCop, only manage to get in his way. A televised overview of him and of OCP sounds more like an ad than a news broadcast–“fair and balanced,” indeed.
Without appealing to a trite romantic progression, the movie takes additional time to humanize both its main protagonist and his police partner who shows herself to be a sweet, concerned woman who nonetheless maintains a determined personality. It’s notable and noble for the film to establish RoboCop’s humanity by way of empathy, instead of lecturing the audience about the definition of life, and this omission helps to keep the story–continually working to show and question just how much of Murphy still remains–from treating its audience as unintelligent.
Somewhere, there is a crime happening.
An ordinary crime takes on a deeply personal significance, using its easily understood nature as an anchor while the action slowly becomes more and more extreme. There’s just something unwise about smoking a cigarette at a gas station, and that’s just a tone-setter for the rest of the movie. RoboCop continues enforcing the law while resolving to bring a very special set of criminals to justice; his unwavering devotion to duty is disturbing and enthralling in equal measure, since that devotion doesn’t always seem to prioritize the safety of innocents if doing so would even momentarily give an escapee an advantage.
After one of the best and most quiet scenes in the whole movie, whose star’s juxtaposition of cold robotics and raw, budding emotion is plain to see, the cyborg continues his quest for arrests in an increasingly weird setting. In a nightclub, people keep on dancing without any apparent reaction to the officer’s appearance. Are they just used to it? A man’s trysts with two women feature crack cocaine, which is also being distributed from a factory. The impressive ensuing gunfight showcases RoboCop’s mechanized feet bending and moving believably. He embraces and epitomizes police brutality, but even he isn’t completely unstoppable.
While a combat scene featuring an old enemy is resolved humorously, another one becomes a tragedy, due not so much to its outcome but to its societal and political origins. There really is no villain in this bitter scene, which becomes difficult to watch. RoboCop’s personal drama and Detroit as a whole reach their lowest point, but that’s when our heroes begin to show what they can really do. The final fight scenes, having dispensed with any sort of restraint, are glorious and ridiculous in their self-indulgence. One weapon in particular is quite a guilty pleasure to watch, and a certain villain ends up with a cartoonishly gross demise. This and the rest of the ending produce a somewhat random but powerful conclusion that tops off a surprisingly grounded movie.
Conclusion: Dead or alive, you’re coming with me.
This is not a throwaway shooting spree. This is a movie with likable characters, a compelling and eventually horrific setting, combat sequences that always have a purpose (no matter their intensity), a bittersweet and even tender story, some really silly jokes, and gratuitous depictions of violence that are actually kind of disgusting. RoboCop has all the ingredients of a mindless action movie but is interested, from start to finish, in being something more than just that.
I never would have expected this film to contain half the attention to detail it actually has, but this is not a movie whose honest depth can easily be understood from a knowlege of the premise alone. Some story threads and ideas could have been given more time, especially in situations where our hero’s unorthodox means of fighting crime bring as many risks as solutions (the gas station fight particularly comes to mind–the damage isn’t entirely his fault, but some of his actions seem negligent). That being stated, the main character’s core programming directives feel very similar to Isaac Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics.” It’s odd that he has to be reminded of those directives at times instead of having them at the forefront of his mind, but they form a commendable if basic ethical system in any case. RoboCop is aware of its relative intelligence and its sense of fun, and for an audience that is willing to deal with graphic content, this romp is more than worthy of your dollar.
Image credits (property of Orion Pictures)
This article was written and published on my movie review blog, Projected Realities.