Robocop (1987): Revisiting the Most Hardcore Action Flick of the 80s

Step out of your 6000 SUX, stop watching TJ Lazer re-runs, put down that flier from the Home Heart Centre, box up your game of NUKEM. That’s right folks, we’re time-traveling to the not too distant future of 2043 Detroit in this episode of REVISITED where Paul Verhoeven set his seminal, all time classic sci-fi action epic ROBOCOP. The Dutch director showcases all of his trademark filmmaking skills and a penchant for graphic violence in the movie and it remains an often copied, but never bettered, example of visceral sci-fi filmmaking. Just think of entertainment empires that are now synonymous with the era in which they first emerged and have gained longevity in various forms – for example; Star WarsMarvelThe Lord of the RingsHarry Potter and it’s hard to imagine a mid-budget movie such as Robocop having the same cultural appeal or influence. However, just like its hero, Alex Murphy, it has proved very hard to kill. The most obvious reason for this, is that the movie is, simply, awesome! So, stock up on baby food and get ready to dive head-first into the most violently hardcore sci-fi movie to emerge from the 1980s – Robocop

The idea for the film first came from aspiring screenwriter Edward Neumeier who was working as a junior story executive for Universal Pictures in the early 1980s. Neumeier was influenced by robot-centered movies such as Star Wars and loved action cinema as well as the mature comic books he would read for potential future acquisition deals. It was while working on the 1982 sci-fi classic Blade Runner that Neumeier got the idea for Robocop. He’s quoted as saying “I had this vision of a far-distant, Blade Runner–type world where there was an all-mechanical cop coming to a sense of real human intelligence”.

He then began collaborating with aspiring director Michael Miner who had produced a robot-themed rock music video and who also had an idea for a film called ‘Supercop’, which of course gets its own reference in the movie. The film focuses on Detroit Police Officer Alex Murphy who is murdered by a gang of criminals and subsequently brought back to life by megacorporation Omni Consumer Products as the cyborg Robocop. With his memory seemingly erased forever, the supercop executes a brutal campaign against crime in Detroit while also coming to terms with the slowly returning fragments of his own humanity. The movie’s plot was influenced by the 1960 psychological horror, Psycho, in which the film’s heroine is also killed off in the first act. The movie also has an unforgettable satirical edge that was influenced by writer Neumeier’s experience with corporate culture and the infamous scene where ED-209 lays waste to poor, unfortunate Mr Kinney, was inspired by Neumeier’s office daydreams about a robot bursting into a meeting and killing everyone.

While in development the first draft of the script was titled Robocop: The Future of Law Enforcement which is, admittedly, a bit of a mouthful. It was passed around industry to friends and associates of writers Neumeier and Miner and before long the pair had offers from both Atlantic Releasing and director Jonathan Kaplan and producer Jon Davison from Orion pictures. Davison was drawn to the satirical edge of the script and showed Neumeier and Miner films such as Mad Max 2Dirty Harry and Madigan to get across the tone that he envisioned for the movie. Once Orion greenlit the project, Neumeier and Miner set about writing a second draft of the script and the birth of one of the most iconic sci-fi characters was well underway.

When director Kaplan left to make 1987’s Project X, the search began for his replacement, and it was a sixth month process that saw many names thrown around before they found their man. Most filmmakers were put off by the film’s title, thinking it played too young, like the Transformers-lite Gobots or another version of Forbidden Planet’s Robby the Robot for example. If only they knew what they were about to miss out on. The project was offered to the likes of David Cronenberg who, in hindsight, would have been a wild choice to direct the movie – just imagine the awesome amount of body horror he would have developed from the premise. Amazon have recently announced that they are revisiting the Robocop franchise so what about Cronenberg junior taking a shot at it? It won’t happen, he’s too edgy for the likes of Amazon to trust with their expensively acquired IPs but just imagine the trip he’d take Alex Murphy on. Regardless of what they do with the franchise it won’t have the satirical bite or hardcore violence of the movie. Or will it? Again, let us know your thoughts in the comments.

Ultimately, Orion executive Barbara Boyle suggested Paul Verhoeven should direct the movie, on the back of the acclaim he had achieved from both his 1977 romantic thriller Soldier of Orange and also 1985’s Flesh and Blood – his only English language film at the time. However, Verhoeven took one look at the first page of the script and dismissed it out of hand as being awful, putting the brakes on the project for a while. It wasn’t until his wife Martine encouraged him to give the second copy of the script he was sent another chance, and to consider the subtext and soul of the story in which somebody loses their identity in such a visceral way. Verhoeven admitted that not being fluent in English meant that the satire in the script was lost on him, but that the scene in which Murphy visits his abandoned home and experiences lingering memories of his former life was intriguing. Verhoeven initially wanted to direct Robocop as a serious film, however, after Neumeier and Miner explained to him that their vision of the movie was more like something akin to 2000 AD, featuring Judge Dredd (who got this own movie a few years later) Verhoeven admitted that a more comic book tone would suit the project perfectly. And boy were they right!

The film stars Peter Weller as Alex Murphy / Robocop, most famous previously for TV roles and the 1985 film My Sister’s Keeper. Weller had the perfect physique for the role in that he was tall and intimidating but also slim enough so that he could peel himself into the suit relatively comfortably. Nancy Allen, best known for being a bitchy teen goddess in De Palma’s horror masterpiece Carrie as well as roles opposite the likes of Jack Nicholson and John Travolta, plays Murphy’s partner Anne Lewis. The late Daniel O’Herlihy plays OCP’s top brass ‘the old man’, Ronny Cox is the corrupt, scheming Dick Jones, and Miguel Ferrer, who sadly passed away in 2017 is the unfortunately yuppie upstart, Bob Morton.

Kurtwood Smith, above all else, steals the show and is one of the most memorable villains from the 1980s, spitting out killer lines, and blood while dominating the criminal underworld with pure gravitas. The most notable supporting cast members feature the likes of ER veteran Paul McCrane as Emil Antonowsky, who also gets his fair share of brilliant lines and one of the most gruesome death scenes ever put to screen. The movie also features Ray Wise as Leon Nash, Jesse D. Goins as Joe Cox, Calvin Junh as Steve Minh, all of which help make up Boddicker’s gang. Also, we can’t leave out the legendary Robert DoQui as Sergeant Warren Reed, Felton Perry as OCP employee Donald Johnson, Lee de Broux as cocaine warehouse owner Sal and the unforgettable poor schmuck Mr Kinney who finds himself on the end of a flurry of bullets from the malfunctioning ED-209. Holy shit man, how many bad-ass and iconic scenes does this movie have? Let me know YOUR favourite scene in the comments section. The cast are all awesome and every single one of the aforementioned characters has at least one memorable and endlessly quotable scene. And yes, that includes the airborne Bobby.

Generally speaking, the early movies from Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven were initially dismissed as being low-rent genre flicks only for them to gather cult status, grow in the public imagination and ultimately remain firmly in the zeitgeist. Both 1990’s Total Recall and 1997’s are classic examples and to be fair, you could probably throw the incredibly badass Robocop into that mix.

Set in a dystopian crime-riddled Detroit, where a huge conglomerate owns the police force, the hero’s journey isn’t your typical Hollywood trope where they must overcome insurmountable odds in order to do the RIGHT thing. Nah, this movie is way more cynical, and therefore satirically biting than that, with Alex Murphy’s prime directive not only to serve the public trust, but to do so as as effectively as possible to maximize the profits of aforementioned conglomerate – OCP. Before we’re introduced to Robocop himself, via a Darth Vader like genesis, OCP realize they need a new form of cop, after their self promoted ‘“future of law enforcement” goes haywire during a boardroom presentation and riddles a low level executive with bullets. After Peter Weller’s newly transferred cop, Alex Murphy, is tortured and seemingly fatally shot in the head by crime lord Clarence Boddicker, his body is transformed into OCP executive Bob Morton’s new project – Robocop. A powerful and heavily armored cyborg with no memory of his former life, RoboCop is programmed with three prime directives: serve the public trust, protect the innocent, and uphold the law. A fourth prime directive, Directive 4, is classified.

What follows is a brutally entertaining movie that effortlessly re-invents what proper grown-up science fiction filmmaking could be and does so with panache, humor and a satirical edge unseen in anything at the time. Robocop’s initial crime fighting sees him easily foiling robberies or street crimes and it’s not until he encounters some of the goons who fatally wounded him that he begins to regain memories of who he was before and exactly what has been taken away from him.

The aforementioned violence is gleefully constructed with a mixture of practical gore, prosthetics and stop motion model work blended together beautifully. The early destruction of the poor, unfortunate Mr Kinney is wildly over the top and Murphy’s assassination by Boddicker and friends is brutal, with limbs being blown off remorselessly. We’re also treated to a warehouse shoot-out fully loaded with enough squibs to make John McTiernan blush as well as a blood-soaked climactic battle with toxic-waste melting bodies, decapitated heads and a wonderfully satisfying sense of retribution. This, of course, is just scratching the surface of the ultra-violence on display, and we could discuss the violence and how it isn’t simply there for shock value, but to add to the substance of the narrative and world-building, for hours. What’s YOUR take on this, is the violence OTT or perfectly executed?

While the violence in the movie arguably helps to drive the plot forward, the key messages in the script are also telegraphed with wit and cynicism. We’re shown various commercials that exist in the movie’s dystopian Detroit future, such as as TV spot for a ‘family’ nuclear war game called ‘Nukem’ as well as one for the recurring 6000 SUX car with a ramaging, eye popping stop-motion t-rex with the message that “bigger is better”. This ties in nicely with the movie’s message that while weapons get bigger and better, more explosive and more powerful, brute force ultimately just creates more problems. The movie isn’t subtle in any way and is all the more baddass as a result. The social commentary makes you question the morality on display, how the hero is being controlled by a nefarious conglomerate and offers a bleak world-view of the future. So, whether or not you’re here for the subtext or to simply enjoy a revolutionary action movie with ultra violence and cool one-liners, Robocop does not disappoint.

As a fun side-note, being just a young pre-pubescent kid with aspirations of becoming a rock star, I was unable to sneak into a local theater to catch Robocop during its initial run. Therefore, my first exposure to the movie was via a dodgy recording on VHS from the TV that a family member had recorded as soon as the movie became available on the small screen. Not ideal. Clarence Boddicker would NOT approve The most notable thing was the toned down language AND violence. The scene in which Robocop foils a robbery in a store by a goon shouting ‘fuck me, fuck me, fuck me’ was hilariously re-dubbed to ‘why me, why me, why me’ and the violence was censored so that the scene would either end abruptly or cut away before you saw a hand being blown off or a melting body decapitated. You can imagine my joy when I was finally able to access the ‘true’ version of the movie.

Robocop opened in North America on July 17th 1987 and during its opening weekend the movie exceeded all expectations by earning $8m from 1,580 theaters. It was the weekend’s number one film, beating the re-release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves plus the much anticipated horror sequel Jaws: The Revenge. With hindsight, however, that one’s probably not much to brag about. By the end of its theatrical run the movie had grossed $53.4 million domestically and while this didn’t set the box-office alight it was nonetheless considered a modest success, with it being the fourteenth highest grossing movie of the year, behind the likes of DragnetLa Bamba and Crocodile DundeeRobocop was one of the surprise hits of the summer and helped to make 1987 set a record box office return of $1.6 billion, thanks in part to in a rise in ticket prices but also quality, more adult orientated releases in the marketplace.

Following the success of Robocop and the growing cult status the movie was building, the studio and franchise rights holders began to fully embrace this with a series of video games, merchandise and yes, you guessed it – sequels. We will hopefully cover the highs and, well, mostly lows of the subsequent movies in the franchise here on Revisited, including the mildly entertaining but sadly tame ‘reboot’ from 2014 that somehow manages to cheapen and water down the iconic original. Also, as mentioned earlier in this video, Amazon Studios have announced that they are developing another incarnation of the franchise and while the cynics among us, yes me included, are skeptical, could they somehow re-capture what made the first movie one of the greatest sci-fi action movies of all time? It’s doubtful, but intriguing. One addition to the Robocop world is a crowd-funded making of documentary called Robodoc: The Creation of Robocop due for release in 2023 that promises a tantalizing glimpse into the making of the first three Robocop movies and will feature interviews with key members of the cast and crew.

Whatever your view of the movie is, and please let us know in the comments section below, there’s no denying the fact that Paul Verhoeven and his team crafted a movie that not only stands the test of time but also gets better as it gets older.

Originally published at https://www.joblo.com/robocop-1987/

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