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Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Director Report Card: Paul Verhoeven (1987)

8. RoboCop

After “Flesh + Blood” opened to lackluster box office, Paul Verhoeven doubled down on his efforts to establish himself in the American film industry. He moved to Los Angeles. “RoboCop” began life as a red hot screenplay written by Edward Neumeier, with the concept expanded on by Michael Miner. After the script was turned down by Alex Cox, it was presented to Verhoeven. He initially threw the script away, partially because he thought the title was silly. However, his wife fished the script out of the trash and got him to reconsider. It was a good call. “RoboCop” would become a rousing success, launching a film franchise that ran for years. Moreover, it remains one of the most iconic films of the 1980s, a landmark in science fiction and action story telling. It also happens to be one of my all time favorite films.

You already know the premise of “RoboCop” but I'll recount it anyway. In the near future, Detroit is a decaying city, full of crime. Massive corporation Omni Consumer Products have privatized the police force. When their initial plan for the future of law enforcement, a robot named ED-209, goes wrong, they move forward on the RoboCop project. Alex Murphy, a hard-working family man and cop, doesn't know any of this. When he's gunned down by psychotic crook Clarence Boddicker, his body is used by OCP as the basis for RoboCop. RoboCop goes to work cleaning up the streets. Yet, as memories of Murphy's past life filter into RoboCop's mind, the cyborg discovers that something more sinister is going on.

When created in 1987, the world of “RoboCop” was a cyberpunk dystopia. Thirty years later, it seems strangely prescient. Detroit really is a city in decline now, that doesn't even have clean drinking water. The police force has become increasingly militarized and the government is actively encouraging the privatization of public services. One prediction of the film hasn't come to past yet but might as well be true. OCP plans to bulldoze Detroit and build a glorious city in its place. A city for the rich that will exclude the poor that lived there once. This latter point is visualized when an attempt rape plays out underneath a billboard for the future Delta City. I don't think Ed Neumeier is a prophet or anything. He simply exaggerated the world as it already existed in the late eighties. And what was ridiculous satire thirty years ago just happened to be closer to realty now.

In 2017, “RoboCop's” status as biting satire is widely recognized. That the film's satiric element was overlooked for years, “RoboCop” being too often dismissed as a brain-dead action flick, really speaks to the myopia of some people. It's not as if Paul Verhoeven is subtle about it. The film's skewering of American foibles circa 1987 is most obvious in its faux television content. We see hilariously exaggerated commercials for massive sports cars or a nuclear war themed board game. The newscaster force smiles onto their faces, staying upbeat and cherry, even while delivering grim news about wars abroad or dying presidents.  The public consumes a crass, sexist sitcom based around a mindless catch phrase. The dual decadent and brainless entertainment clearly points to what America is in “RoboCop's” world: An empire in decline.

“RoboCop's” brilliant script was certainly a contributing factor to the film's lasting cult status. Yet “RoboCop” was also made at the peak of eighties' practical special effects. This resulted in some truly brilliant production design and creature work. Consider RoboCop himself. Inspired by Judge Dredd and Japanese superheroes, the titular character's design is impeccably sleek. Everything about RoboCop is meant to bring smooth machinery to mind. His rounded head and segmented shoulders creates a defined silhouette. The pistons on his legs bring the character's pure strength to mind. The effects work, from Rob Bottin and his team, is truly groundbreaking. After RoboCop removes his helmet, the viewer fully believes that Murphy's face was stretched over a robotic head. I don't know how they pulled that off.

As great as the RoboCop suit is, and I think it's truly great, it's not my favorite special effect in the film. That honor falls to ED-209, Murphy's most persistent reoccurring adversary. ED-209's design is also brilliant, looking like the three-way offspring of a pick-up truck, a Tyrannosaurus Rex, and a Sherman tank. ED-209 has a personality too. His programmed voice barks orders in a harsh tone, when it isn't growling like a monster. Yet ED-209, a top-of-the-line machine, can't navigate something as simple as stairs. When it falls on its ass, it kicks and screams like a baby. ED-209 is brought to life by a beautiful life-sized prop and some brilliant stop-motion effects from master Phil Tippet. Tippet's work contributes much of ED's humorous aspects, creating a life-like, personable character.

All throughout his Dutch films, Paul Verhoeven's visual sense continued to evolve in interesting ways. This developing talent is obvious in “RoboCop.” Compare the somewhat stiff action sequences in “Flesh + Blood” with the shoot-outs here. During the cocaine factory shoot-out, one of the best scenes in the film, Verhoeven's camera gracefully slides through the violence, providing a constant sense of motion. As awesome as the action scenes are, the quieter moments are even more impressive. Such as the scene where RoboCop explores the house that belong to him and his family when he was still Alex Murphy. The film smoothly shifts between what the cyborg is seeing and the memories of his wife and child. It's a gorgeous, touching sequence, powerfully conveying what the character is feeling through purely visual means.

When Paul Verhoeven came to America, he traded the explicit sexual content of his Dutch film for the most American of content: Graphic violence. Verhoeven would push his bloodlust to unseen levels in “RoboCop.” Every bullet blast produces an enormous, weeping wound. Bloody chunks are tossed into the air every time someone is shot. This is most apparent when ED-209 malfunctions. The robot's unintentional victim is reduced to a pile of bloody giblets, a grown man Swiss cheesed into blasted-up meat. Guns aren't the only weapons employed. When RoboCop stabs an opponent, more blood than seems possible spurts out. My favorite bit involves a man driving into a toxic waste bin and stepping out as a melted, mutated man. Who then gets splattered around by a car. It's an incredibly fucked-up scene seemingly inserted for the hell of it. It says a lot about Verhoeven that the only thing his director's cut returns to the film are longer, grislier scenes of carnage.

Still, there are trademarks Verhoeven didn't leave in the Netherlands. The director's Christ fixation remains present. Alex Murphy rises from the dead, making him an obvious Christ figure. Verhoeven points towards this with the cop's extended death scene. He is “crucified,” when Boddicker and his gang dismember him. During his climatic battle with the same villain, he is pierced in the abdomen by a spear, another Christ parallel. Moments before, RoboCop is seen walking on water. Verhoeven sneaks a sex scene into the film using similar tactics. When secluded in a junkyard, Alex Murphy and Anne Lewis share an intimate moment. She helps him straighten his gun, caressing his arm romantically. Afterwards, he can shoot straight. He then blasts a jar of baby food, the goopy contents splattering everywhere. RoboCop can't get laid anymore so this is the closest thing for him.

By 1987, Peter Weller already had one genuine cult favorite under his belt, playing the title character in the delirious pulp adventure “Buckaroo Bonzai Across the Eighth Dimension.” With “RoboCop,” Weller would cement his status as a nerd icon. (It probably doesn't hurt that he's a history expert in real life too.) When first introduced, Alex Murphy is an everyman. He's an energetic cop, who wants to make a good impression on his first day on the job. We don't see much of him in these early scenes but it's evident that he loves his son. After becoming RoboCop, Weller brilliantly creates a new character through his body language. He affects a carefully chosen voice. Every movement is calculated, to display the precision of a well oiled machine. This is evident in the biggest action scenes and the smallest dialogue exchanges. Thought went into every movement Murphy makes. Weller's performance is simply brilliant.

As compelling as Weller's robotic motion are, what truly makes his performance touching is Murphy's character arc. Because “RoboCop” is a story about a man regaining his humanity, a machine realizing its human. A combination of the direction and Weller's performance make RoboCop hugely expressive. Such as when he searches the police archives for the men who killed him. His face never moves and yet we understand his pain. After barely escaping OCP, while heavily damaged, RoboCop removes his helmet and reveals his face. In a touching moment, he asks Anne to leave him alone. As Murphy regains his humanity, Weller integrates more human-like quirks into his robotic performance, visually illustrating the character's transition. At the ending, when RoboCop responds with Murphy's name, his journey back to manhood is completed. Which makes the film touching, even with all its bloodshed.

Weller is backed up by a fantastic supporting cast. Nancy Allen, the former muse of Brian DePalma, plays Anne Lewis. Allen is convincing during her early action scenes, smartly driving a car to get a drop on the bad guys. She's even better when reaching Murphy's humanity. A simple exchange in a hallway speaks volume. Among the OCP lot are several beloved character actors. The sadly late Miguel Ferrer is perfect as Bob Morgan, a spiteful bro of a business executive. He's an ideal villain, someone the audience hates but so entertaining that you still enjoy watching him. Ferrer amusingly hints at Bob's cocaine addiction by repeatedly flaring Bob's nostrils. Ronny Cox, meanwhile, mixes desperation and scraggly psychosis as Dick Jones, a despicable douchbag.

As great as those two are, they are not the best villain in “RoboCop.” Let's give a hand for Clarence Boddicker. He looks like an accountant, wearing a pair of glasses that seem like an odd choice for a thuggish drug lord. This is an intentional subversion, proving that not all hardened criminals look like Danny Trejo. The great Kurtwood Smith makes Clarence Boddicker a slimy little shit, someone who willingly sells out his boss when shoved into a corner. Yet Smith also brings a hilariously sardonic sense of humor to the character. A line like “Bitches leave!” become poetry in his scratchy Midwestern accent. The character is a punishing, sadistic bastard who is only in it for himself. Despite this, there's something oddly lovable about Clarence Boddicker. He's the perfect foil for the upstanding, driven RoboCop.

If I'm saying “RoboCop” has some of the best practical creature effects of all time and one of the best villains of all time, I might as well call its soundtrack one of the best scores of all time. Basil Poledouris had already create amazing scores for “Conan the Barbarian” and Verhoeven's own “Flesh + Blood.” With “RoboCop,” he tops even impressive work like that. The main theme mixes soaring strings with a metallic, hammering bass line. This hints at the dual nature of the protagonist, both man and machine. It also drives the action scenes with an irresistible energy. The quieter moments emphasize the strings, creating a mournful theme for Murphy's melancholic inner life. During the action scenes, Poledouris doubles down on the horns and percussion, creating powerful music to waste goons by. It's probably my all-time favorite score.

“RoboCop” remains a great film satirizing American action movies while also functioning as a perfect American action movie. Its humor is biting and hilarious. Its social observations are still relevant. Its performances are excellent. Its special effects still impress. The action is bold and bloody and unforgettable. The script sneaks a surprising amount of pathos into a hyperviolent story of cyborgs and crooks. One of the best blockbusters ever made, “RoboCop” still satisfies as a crowd-pleaser and as a surprisingly deep vehicle for social commentary. [Grade: A]

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