Sunday 4 October 2015

Movie Review: RoboCop (1987)

A near-future science fiction action thriller, RoboCop has rollicking fun with the introduction of a semi-human robotic police officer into a decaying urban landscape dominated by gangs and a corrupt corporation.

In a dismal future Detroit, megacorporation Omni Consumer Products (OCP) is given control over the city's overstretched police force. Senior President Richard "Dick" Jones (Ronny Cox) plans to introduce the mammoth ED-209 tank-scale robot to keep control of the streets, but the machine malfunctions in the worst possible way and the program is scrapped by the Chairman (Dan O'Herlihy). Instead, OCP executive Robert "Bob" Morton (Miguel Ferrer) rushes his alternative plan into place: reanimating deceased police officers into almost indestructible robots.

Police officer Alex Murphy (Paul Weller) is transferred into Old Detroit, the worst precinct in the city, and partnered with officer Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen). The pair soon fall into the clutches of vicious gang lord Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith) and his trigger-happy friends. Murphy is repeatedly shot, including a bullet through the head, and attempts to revive him fail. He is reconstituted as RoboCop, and is soon helping to get criminals off the street. But RoboCop begins to experience flashes of his old life as Murphy, and sets out to bring Boddicker to justice. Meanwhile, the power struggle between Jones and Morton turns nasty, as OCP's grander objectives are revealed, placing RoboCop and Lewis in grave danger.

A cross between cheesy low budget science fiction and sly social commentary, RoboCop contains many of director Paul Verhoeven's favourite trademarks: a dysfunctional society merrily marching to the beat of bad television reporting and worse corporate control. The violence is of the jarring in-your-face variety, the satirical humour is subtle and never far from the surface, and the message about science-gone-wrong in the hands of the profit sector resonates with a sharp jab.

Clocking in at an efficient 100 minutes, RoboCop builds quick momentum and maintains it with a no nonsense style. Characters say what they mean, bad guys are evil, sleazy or both. Boddicker and Jones make for a perfectly vile pair of villains, and officers Murphy and Lewis are the overmatched forces of good arrayed against heavily weaponized gangsters. When Murphy becomes RoboCop, his impressive new abilities are not so much an advantage as a leveller. The dystopian Detroit aesthetic is only a few high rises removed from Mad Max's preferred terrain.

The action highlights are plenty and packed with fun. ED-209 disrupts a board meeting in a classic case of meeting adjourned with finality for one unfortunate middle manager. Officer Murphy meets his end in a grim abandoned warehouse, shot multiple times by the worst examples of human refuse. And to set up the rip-roaring climax, Boddicker gets his hands on several of those futuristic rifle weapons of mass destruction that only exist to embolden on-screen mayhem.

Through it all, Verhoeven has plenty to say about an extrapolated near-future. Every social service is for sale to the private sector in RoboCop, with OCP tackling policing as only the latest in a series of expansions into what used to be the domain of government. The battle for control of the streets is already lost, and the clean-up placed in the hands of those who can profit from deploying hardware, the city as proving grounds for military applications. The sergeant in charge of the Old Detroit police precinct is routinely shoved aside by OCP executives, a relic of the failed old methods of public safety. Unfettered privatization will expand to fill any void (and it's hinted that the enforcement void is created by Boddicker with OCP's blessing), as long as there is a profit to be made in the product lifecycle.

An action film that is smart, brassy and perceptive, RoboCop pounds out its message in gleaming bullet-proof armour.

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