When talking about the greatest action films of the 1980’s, doing so without bringing up RoboCop is disgraceful in the highest possible manner. Paul Verhoeven’s Hollywood debut remains not only a staple for iconic 1980’s action films but one of the most intelligent, if in-your-face satires of said era. A film that could easily be dismissed as enjoyable action fare from the period at youth, but oncoming years have only allowed the value of RoboCop to become even clearer than ever. It carries the look of an action movie just the way we love it but what’s lying beneath in where the wonders that form Paul Verhoeven’s body of work have formed clear. Sometime I wish to slap younger me across the face for not being able to see any of this at the time but I have to give it to RoboCop for helping me at the same time with accepting the sight of graphic violence on the screen, so in part it might have helped me in heading as far as I’ve managed to reach.
The setup for a perfect satire is afoot: a dystopian world in which crime is running rampant and police officers put their own lives at stake almost to the point that some choose to go on strike. One of these people happens to be Peter Weller’s Murphy, a man who was killed by the ruthless Clarence Boddicker. After faults over at the company in which the police officers come from, an ambitious young employee who seeks to rise higher decides to have Murphy as the subject of a project he dubs “RoboCop” and now a “perfect” cop is formed through Murphy’s rebirth. It would be easy to gain fans from people who would enjoy seeing RoboCop shooting up bad guys while in action but there’s a greater critique at the bottom of this that ultimately allows RoboCop to rise higher. It takes the background of an action film in order to lash out at the direction our world continues to move.
Paul Verhoeven’s satire isn’t particularly subtle but in RoboCop it is only fitting that everything comes out at a nature where everything is so distinctly in your face for it suits the nature of the film so perfectly. Everything comes in such a manner it must lash out at the division between the rich and the poor alongside the growing industrialism running rampant across the nation. When looking at smaller portions of this dystopian world whether they come back to the news breaks, the clear goals of the businessmen running the lot or the vulgar advertising – it all makes perfect sense regarding the destructive nature of society’s demands only to “advance.” It looks funny with one glance but with the current state of businesses and their desire to reach unsuspecting citizens, all of this goes ahead to solidify the relevance of Paul Verhoeven’s social criticisms in RoboCop.
The violence of RoboCop is especially unrestrained – but to think it was shown as widely as it was would only be one amongst its smaller joys for it fits the harsh nature of Verhoeven’s dystopian satire. I still remember the first time I laid my own eyes on RoboCop – it was on television back-to-back with another Verhoeven film, Total Recall. Much like Total Recall, we see at base a bloody action film but on Verhoeven’s end it’s a wonderful testament to how he handles his satire and one of many reasons it finds itself working as wonderfully as it does. Coming down to the details of Murphy’s fate before he ultimately became the crime-fighting android that we have grown to love him as, it’s the fact that Verhoeven never holds back that only allows him to comment upon a common desire from audiences with action films. With the death of Murphy, the gruesome detailing of such a sequence plays back almost like PTSD upon return from war and it condemns the sort of excess typical of the decade of its release, especially with a note to consider that it had come out during the Ronald Reagan years.
Though with the consideration that RoboCop himself is an idealized “perfect” cop that supposedly would be OCP’s idea to stop all crime with a manner of weeks, only there does the film go to show a sense of heart. Peter Weller’s performance is a wonderful one, but the heart at the very center of a supposedly robotic figure shows a human still struggling with traumatic memories especially in regards to a more meaningful examination of the human condition at hand. RoboCop himself plays like a metaphor for soldiers who have returned from the war and how the public perceives them to be, but deep down there is still something troubling a soul like him. All that the system and the public sees is RoboCop, but we still see Murphy, struggling to carry a grasp upon his reality now that he is a part of Bob Morton’s program and it gains a greater sense of sympathy for him as a whole – and in turn created one of the greatest action heroes in the history of American film, for it all comes down to how he is treated all throughout by the system holding him. They see a Christ-like figure but ultimately what creates a sympathetic character comes down to how at heart he is still a good man under a costume only wanting the best for the people he loves.
Paul Verhoeven’s films have always carried a distinctive layer that would carry its appeal for what would be expected from how it appears but the underlying cleverness to a film like RoboCop comes down to far more than just that. As an action movie, it carries all the very best in terms of set pieces, action choreography, menacing villain characters, and bloodshed. But in typical Paul Verhoeven fashion we have aggressive satire about business upon how it runs the society we live in, and how ultimately a sense of “advancement” only ends up destroying the world more and more. I knew already upon my first watch I was missing something then for I was impressed enough with RoboCop on the count that it was an action film, but on the inside something more intelligent arises. And it is nothing short of glorious – one of the greatest American films of the 1980’s.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via MGM/UA.
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Screenplay by Edward Neumeier, Michael Miner
Produced by Arne Schmidt
Starring Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Daniel O’Herlihy, Ronny Cox, Kurtwood Smith, Miguel Ferrer
Release Year: 1987
Running Time: 101 minutes