Recently, a college friend of mine and his young son, who is primary school age, had a discussion about whether to watch RoboCop, the one and original. (I’ve yet to see that remake that came out many years ago. And I have no desire to anytime soon.)
Released in mid to late July 1987, the sci-fi action comedy mixed satire with brutal violence, vulgarity with social commentary, and surprisingly Christian symbolism one might not expect to find.
In the 1980s, movies like this could still push the envelope and get by with an R rating before studios began abusing the PG-13 in the 2000s and early half of the 2010s.
Distributed by Orion Pictures, which was known for taking more chances, the movie starred an actor, Peter Weller, who had gained some cult status with his appearance as Buckaroo Banzai and Nancy Allen and a bunch of character actors whose names you may not known. Ronny Cox plays the evil corporate executive Dick Jones and Kurtwood Smith plays sadistic crime boss Clarence Boddicker.
Cox and Smith, up until then, had mostly been playing nice guy roles. Cox was known for his nice-guy supervisor role in the Beverly Hills Cop movies as well as the guitar playing Atlanta businessman who goes on that dangerous canoe trip in Deliverance. Smith, by his own friends admission, said it was a complete turn as in actuality at the time, Smith was an easy-going surfer dude.
Director Paul Verhoeven said he cast Cox and Smith mostly because they hadn’t played characters like this before. Smith also looked like Heinrich Himmler with glasses on, Verhoeven also said.
The plot is set in the near future of Detroit where a major business conglomerate Omni Consumer Products (OCP) has agreed to take care of the budget of the Detroit Metropolitan Police Department. This begs the question, if a company is paying the bills, do they have a say in what the money is really used for?
Jones actually uses this to his advantage as installing a prime directive in RoboCop that he can’t arrest a senior OCP officer. After his demonstration of an ED 209 fully armed hulking robot fails by killing an executive, a young and equally slimy executive Bob Morton (Miquel Ferrer) convinces the OCP boss played by Daniel O’Herlihy to approve the RoboCop program as a back-up. Apparently, Morton has restructured the police precincts to put the most qualified candidates unknowingly in the most dangerous neighborhoods.
One of those is Alex Murphy (Weller) who comes from a generation of law enforcement. While he and his partner, Anne Lewis (Allen) try to apprehend Boddicker and his gang, he is brutally gunned down.
When hospital staff are unable to save his life, his body is switched over to OCP which like a robotic Frankenstein’s creature, put pieces of upper body into the cyborg that has a bullet-resistant armor plate and mechanical arms with hands that have grips that can crush bones.
At first, RoboCop becomes a good public relations for OCP and the DPD, leading Morton to move up in the ranks. But Lewis notices something familiar about RoboCop, such as the way he twirls his handgun the same way Murphy did and even looks and sound like him. A protective visor is over his upper head so that only his jawline is shown.
And unfortunately, despite attempts to wipe his memory, RoboCop has memories of his life as Murphy and seeks out Boddicker and his gang for revenge after stopping one of them, Emil (Paul McCrane), from robbing a gas station and possibly killing the attendant, even though Emil is successful in blowing up the station.
At the same time, Jones is trying to make the the program a disaster and is in cahoots with Boddicker because he wants to make sections of Detroit more crime-ridden so he can push the ED 209 program further as he’s secretly worked out a deal with the military to make money.
What makes the movie work is that it knows it’s not to be taken seriously even when it is pushing some fascinating ideas. The 1980s hadn’t been a good time for some people. The Middle Class began to suffer as the factory and manufacturing industry was being affected by the economy and policies of Reaganomics.
The climatic scene between RoboCop and Boddicker is set in an abandoned steel factory. Detroit, itself, was hit hard by the disputes with labor unions and a sudden change as consumers were seeking more foreign-made vehicles. The police department speaks of striking because they are being forced to work in unsafe conditions for little pay.
Does this sound familiar? And there’s a debate among the public on whether law enforcement should strike. Remember when Reagan fired the striking air traffic controllers? At the end, all OCP cares about is the end result and they are planning to basically gentrify Old Detroit to start construction on Delta City.
Even though it’s almost 35 years old, not a lot seems to have changed. Or maybe the filmmakers were able to foresee the future?
Ironically, the issue of the city of Detroit needed some funds from private third parties actually happened years ago. Are Dick Jones and Bob Morton any different than Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, or other billionaires willing to put profit above people. All Jones cares about is money and so what if ED 209s kill people. And Morton views hard-working people as guinea pigs.
Murphy is like many other people with a wife and a kid. The movie doesn’t really focus on the effect it has on his family but when Murphy/RoboCop visits his own home, we see that it looks like it was abruptly abandoned.
There’s a lot in such a short movie that only runs about 100 minutes with credits. And that might be why the movie has held up so greatly among its fans over the years. It doesn’t lag in places where normally other movies would and it has the brass cojones to “go for the jugular” as my old writing professor used to say.
The movie is loaded with violence, an outrageous amount that would make Quentin Tarantino, Eli Roth and Zack Snyder all jizz so much they could fill every sperm bank in California for the next decade. And Verhoeven had to tone down the violence to secure an R.
Scenes in which an ED 209 shoots the young executive were more graphic. Why did they even bother given him live ammunition for a demonstration? And Emil suffers a fate that is both gruesome and hilarious as he finds himself melting after crashing into a toxic waste. Boddicker, himself, had a more violent end as RoboCop does go for the jugular causing arterial spray all over him.
But there was also humor to the movie. My parents couldn’t help but laugh when someone screams to call a paramedic after the young executive’s body is lying all over the place. Lots of luck there. And Verhoeven hilariously includes Leeza Gibbons and Mario Machado as a news anchor team who are constantly giving news reports showing what the rest of the world is like. During one news segment, they talk about a space laser system misfiring and killing thousands including former Presidents with a matter of fact tone. There’s also fake commercials that walk a fine line between resembling the real thing and parody.
There’s a subplot in the movie about a 6000 SUX being the hottest vehicle to have. Then there’s a recurring small commercial or spot that is shown repeatedly on TVs of a portly balding man maniacally laughing while saying “I’ll buy that for a dollar!” while he is surrounded by beautiful young scantily clad woman. I have no idea what it is or supposed to be.
There’s also Christian symbolism in the movie which surprisingly attracted Verhoeven to the project. RoboCop is a symbol of Christ as Murphy is killed but he is reborn as a mightier entity. There’s even a scene of RoboCop appearing to walk on water as he walks through ankle-deep water as he approaches Boddicker.
Some might even say Dick Jones represents Lucifer as he is fired from his boss after trying to stage a takeover and falls from the high storied building after being shot multiple times.
Made on a modest budget of $13-14 million, the movie ended up grossing four times that with about $54 million at the box office. The popularity surprisingly spawned comic books and a Saturday morning TV show that toned down the violence big time. There was also that sequel that was too gruesome but didn’t have the same tone.
Co-written by comic book writer Frank Miller, it featured RoboCop going after a drug kingpin who makes Boddicker look like Mr. Rogers. In one of the most disturbing scenes, a crooked cop is dissected alive as he screams and a young kid’s head is forcible positioned to watch it. RoboCop 2 was just violent for the sake of being violent.
And then there was RoboCop 3 directed by Fred Dekker and filmed in Atlanta in the neighborhood that was later raised to build the 1996 Olympic village. The third movie seemed to take an even lighter tone than the cartoon as pairing Robo with a young child prodigy and making him fly. It also had a PG-13 rating.
Worse, the movie was placed on the shelf for two years during Orion bankruptcy in the early 1990s. I remember hearing all the news reports talking excitedly about the third movie in 1990. Now, movies are fighting for film time in Georgia. The third movie also replaced Weller with Robert John Burke.
It’s been reported that Weller wasn’t too happy being in the uncomfortable suit. The first movie was filmed in the Dallas metro area during the summer of 1986 during an unseasonably warmer climate. Reportedly Dallas had more futuristic buildings as well as Texas being one of the first right-to-work states.
Reportedly, Weller was losing so much water weight, he had to constantly be drinking fluids between takes and sitting surrounded by fans. The suit was later retrofitted to allow an air conditioner fan. And production would rely on shots featuring Robo from the waist up as much as they could so Weller could walk around with no pants so he wouldn’t sweat as much.
That must have been a sight to see. It’s probably why he had less screen time in the sequel. Reports differ on why Weller refused to return for the third one. Some indications was he was unhappy with the franchise and made Naked Lunch instead. Others say they couldn’t settle on his salary or contract conditions. Considering it’s one of the worst sequels ever made, it was right on his part for not returning.
I’ve heard Weller was finally contacting for a documentary on the making and legacy of this movie so that might be worth watching.
There was several TV movies made intended to act as sequels. I haven’t seen those either, but have heard they do have their fan base.
I’ve also heard there are plans to make a direct sequel ignoring all previous sequels, since it’s popular right now to do that with the Halloween and Terminator movies.
Time will tell. But there will only be one true RoboCop.
Maybe it was just lightning in a bottle and can’t be duplicated. But if a filmmaker is able to capture what made the first one so great, I’d buy that for a dollar.