Thursday, February 20, 2014

Movie Review: "Robocop" (1987) by David Pretty

Just for the record, Robocop made the following prescient predictions:
  1. News will become infotainment.
  2. Compact discs will be employed for data storage by rich CEOs who are obviously too cheap to buy a flash drive.
  3. Corporations will start to privatize traditionally-nationalized enterprises such as the military, hospitals, prisons, education, space travel, and urban planning.
  4. Detroit will implode.
  5. Network television will get even worse.
  6. Ummm, hel-lo? How about the film's fucking premise?     
In fact, just about the only thing the film didn't accurately predict was unisex change rooms. 'Cuz, y'know, perish forbid we actually grew up a little bit about nudity.

But pretty much everything else has come to pass, making the original Robocop a film that belongs in the upper pantheon of great sci-fi. Admittedly, it also makes for a pretty ripe target for a remake since we obviously didn't heed the movie's warnings the first time around.

One of the main reasons for the film's success is Peter Weller. At first he seems like the unlikeliest of cops: scrawny, vaguely effeminate and conspicuously blow-dried. Hell, Nancy Allen's Lewis comes across as more kick-ass since she's first seen pummeling a rowdy prisoner into submission.

"Pretty neat," the buttoned-down Murphy wryly observes.

But just a few minutes later he's pulling rank behind the driver's seat, performing enough quick-draw stunts to generate a lifetime of paperwork, talkin' 'bout his wife and kid back home and then charging into battle with both guns a-blazin'. This flash-sketched characterization is more than enough to get the audience firmly in his corner. We're predisposed to Murphy because he's brave, he's a family man and, let's face it, he's kinda goofy. As such, when our two heroes are forced to confront THE BAD GUYS without the benefit of back- up, we're already rooting for them.

But then the script goes and does it's one and only supremely stupid thing. After Officer Lewis gets the drop on one of the crooks she inexplicably falls for the old "You mind if this up?" gag. This immediately gives every female watching the film a legitimate reason to roll their eyes while every idiotic male begins to ponder this tactic's probability of success against the average meter maid.
Anyway, this gives the gang a chance to flank, capture and then systemically dismantle Murphy in the most hideous and grotesque method imaginable. When I first saw this at the ripe old age of seventeen I was soundly traumatized. The concept of even fictional characters deriving such sadistic glee at the prospects of torturing someone else completely shattered my fragile eggshell mind. For the rest of the film I wanted Nancy Allen's character to enter a shame spiral and turn into a raging alcoholic, but for some reason she's completely nonplussed by her own catastrophic fuck-up.

The Jesus parable that follows gives director Paul Verhoeven a chance to flex his stylistic muscles. From Murphy's bleak perspective we witness a team of medics frantically struggling to save his life but to no avail. After the screen goes dark for an inordinate amount of time our point of view is then rebooted in robo-vision. This leads to a virtuoso reveal of Peter Weller in the Robocop suit as well as an introductory first-night patrol montage that, at the time, I hoped would one day find its way into an actual super hero film.

As an aside, I'm not surprised that comic book scribe Frank Miller was eventually brought in to pen the sequel since, either by design or by co-incidence, Robocop bears a striking similarity to The Dark Knight Returns which was published the previous year. You've got ironic/serious news reports, gobs of social commentary, a rogue hero, villains who refuse to play by the rules and the sort of gallows humor that would give Spalding Gray pause for thought.

The scene in which a former Mayor goes off the rails, takes a bunch of hostages and then threatens to ventilate the incumbent if he doesn't get his old job back is pure Miller-ian goodness. While a hostage negotiator keeps the lunatic engaged in a gloriously-dadaist conversation over demands ("And I want a new car! Something with reclining leather seats, that goes really fast, and gets really shitty gas mileage!"), Robocop bursts through the walls and then punches the lunatic through a window. Honestly, it's a wonder Frank Miller didn't sue screenwriters Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner for intellectual property theft.

Funny thing is, their script is actually a lot more even then many of Miller's disproportionately-bleak efforts. After Robocop video captures a confessional from one of his earlier assailants, he returns to the precinct, identifies the goon, pin-points the ringleader and then stumbles upon his own defunct police file. What follows is a powerful sequence in which Robocop returns to his now-deserted home and experiences a series of brilliantly-edited flashbacks. It's the sort of genuine emotional heft that Frank Miller seems increasingly incapable of.

You might scoff, but I maintain that the script for Robocop is actually one of the finest ever produced. Every plot element fits together like a puzzle. Witness the dramatically-sublime evocation of the mysterious "Directive Four", the scene in which Murphy's fellow officers hunt him down in a poetic evocation of his origin story, and the calm-before-the-storm "target practice" sequence between Murphy and Lewis. And, of course, who can forget the rousing climax which features the most timely termination in cinema history?

But perhaps the set-pièce de résistance is the satirically-vicious ED-209 demo / board room scene which kicks off the film. Speaking as someone who's been stuck in more then his fair share of business presentations gone comically awry, this has to be one of the best representations of corporate hubris ever commited to film. One day I hope to thank Paul Verhoeven and his screenwriters personally for trying to warn me at a young age that some of the biggest scumbags on the planet wear ties, not tattoos.

Of course a movie like Robocop is only as good as its villains and here we're treated to no less than three world-class creeps. Up first is Dick Jones, played by omnipresent 80's heavy Ronny Cox. If there's an actor that effortlessly manages to embody white-collar swagga, a cocksure attitude and a penchant for greasy machinations, it's Ronny Cox. The scene in which he bushwhacks an underling in an executive washroom is downright unnerving.

Speak of the devil, Miguel Ferrer is absolutely electrifying as Dick's coked-up understudy, the egotistical, ladder-climbing Bob Morton. He's the prototypical Reagan-era go-getter: a smarmy, opportunistic and ruthless little fuck who's more then willing to toss a co-worker into the gun-sites of ED 209, elbow his superior out of the way for a promotion or wallow in Wolf of Wall Street excess whenever possible. Just check out the scene in which he casually orders his medical team to lop off Murphy's salvageable arm just for sake of his own selfish vision.

But neither of these two weasels can hold a candle to the film's prime evil: Clarence Boddicker played by Kurtwood Smith. I'm going to go out on a limb here and make a bold claim: I believe that Clarence Boddicker is one of the greatest villains in cinema history. Here, let me lay out my case...

When we first meet the guy he's completely freaking out, verbally and physically assaulting his own cohorts for charring the cash they they just robbed from a bank. Not two seconds after Murphy and Lewis roll up on them in their squad car, Clarence gives his gang the order to open up on them like Tony Montana backed into a corner. And then, when one of his flunkies get shot in the leg, Clarence wrenches him close, asks "Can you fly, Bobby?" and then heaves him right out of the back of the van onto his pursuer's windshield!

Want more evidence that Clarence Boddicker is the number-one, bad-ass, stone-cold, pimp cinematic motherfucker of all time? Let me count the ways...
  • He looks like the love child of Les Nessman and Heinrich Himmler.   
  • "Bitches...leave!"
  • "Just give me my fucking phone call." 
  • The gift of gum.
  • The best way to test out a new weapon? Use it on your buddy's new 6000 SUX.
  • "Sayonara, RoboCop!" 
  • "Well, give the man a hand!"
  • He has absolutely no problem getting aggro with a mob boss.
As great as the character is written and as awesome as the dialogue is, it's the greasy assurance and crazed bombast of Kurtwood Smith and really brings Clarence to life. If you thought the dad on That 70's Show was intense wait until you get a load of him in this flick. Cold, calculating, arrogant, sexist, opportunistic, randomly violent and possessed of a craven self-preservation streak a mile long, Smith disappears within this vile role and sets the villainy bar impossibly high in the process.

Clarance's gang is fleshed out by a memorable pack of Grade-A assholes. Bug-eyed Ray Wise makes an impression as the ethically bankrupt Leon, Jesse Goins is appropriately annoying as the jackal-like Joe Cox and Paul McCrane is cheerfully anarchic as chief goon Emil Andenowski. The genuine enthusiasm he exhibits after trying out the Cobra Assault Cannon is almost infectious. 

Tons of stellar performances abound. Notwithstanding her character's monumental fuck up, Nancy Allen is both charming and convincingly tough as Ann Lewis. Robert DoQui is also very sympathetic as the put-upon Sergeant Warren Reed. Finally veteran actor Dan O'Herlihy is cheerfully unconscionable and deliberately oblivious as the "Old Man", OCP's Chairman. His delivery of "Dick, I'm very disappointed" after the ED-209 debacle is nothing short of epic.

The film's production design also strikes the perfect balance between contemporary and futuristic. The real world cop-shop contrasts nicely with the shiny environs of OCP, with its wall of monitors, splashy executive washrooms and exterior glass elevators. Augmented with expertly-crafted matte paintings, the then-relatively-new structures of downtown Dallas stand in for the Detroit skyline while a real steel mill in Pittsburgh provides an appropriately-gritty setting for the film's final confrontation.

For a pre-CGI flick, the special-effects still hold up quite well. Notwithstanding the fact that I could never understand why the bad guys just didn't shoot him right in the mush, the Robocop suit design is nothing short of iconic. ED-209 was cleverly realized using a full-scale, on-set prop combined with stop-motion model work, the jerky nature of which is actually quite forgiving when it comes to robotic animation. The inevitable brawl between Robocop and ED is clear, quick, brutal, and mercifully to the point.

Except for a jarringly-inept stop-motion puppet used in a few frames during the film's climax, the bulk of the special effects are actually pretty durned good. Particularly notable is the incredible makeup job done for Emil's close encounter with the toxic sludge vat. Not only is the full body prosthetic totally gross and convincing, it perfectly embodies Paul Verhoeven's fascination with blending humor with horror. The first time I saw this I was completely gobsmacked but now I think it's one of the funniest things I've ever seen. I just wish that Clarence would have made the scene perfect by turning on his windshield wipers for a seconds.

At the end of the film, when Lewis finds herself in pretty much the same shape that inspired Murphy's "upgrade" we get the following exchange between the two:

Lewis: Murphy... I'm a mess...
RoboCop: They'll fix you. They fix everything.

I always thought this presaged a sequel in which Lewis gets bull-rushed through her own MARK II Robocop process in order to save her life but then ends up going rogue. I still think that this would have been a better plot then the scatterbrained, trying-too-hard schlock that followed. Admittedly, I haven't seen Robocop 2 since it was in originally theaters so I'm keen to revisit it to see if it's as terrible as I remember.

Bottom line: the remake has a lot of potential for an interesting main character, over-the-top villains, creative action sequences and plenty of social satire but it has a lot to live up to. Hopefully it wont be the sort of inappropriate, poorly-designed dreck that OCP has no problem crapping off of an assembly line.     

          Tilt: up.

1 comment:

  1. sweet jesus...i never thought about the predictions Robocop made. that's some downright scary accuracy.