Updated: Feb 25, 2019
Officer Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) has just been transferred from a cushy gig to one of the worst precincts in Detroit. His new partner is a tough-as-nails, streetwise woman named Ann Lewis (Nancy Allen), and they form an immediate respect for each other. The duo, never hesitating to put themselves in danger's way, attempt a daring two-cop takedown of a notorious drug ring. Things don't go well. In the gang's factory hideout, Lewis is punched off of a balcony, and rendered temporarily out of commission. By the time she can hear Murphy on her radio and run to his aide, he has been gunned down by the hoods and their ringleader, Clarence Boddicker (Curtwood Smith).
By his death, Murphy "volunteers" to be used for the Robocop Project, which sees him rebuilt as a cyborg, his head being the only organic component. This government-contracted program to clean up Detroit was awarded to mega-conglomerate Omni Consumer Products. But OCP has evil entrenched in its white collar ranks, which proves to be as much of a threat to Robocop as the scum of the streets. Haunted by memories of his human life and aided by Lewis, Robocop sets out to dispense justice by any means necessary.
Few movies deliver more creativity and viewer satisfaction than Robocop, one of the top-grossing films of 1987. Violent and smart, the Paul Verhoeven-directed epic is punctuated with dark humor and carries more than a little heart. While it's not for the weak of stomach, Robocop is a masterpiece of cinema.
I want to take a minute to talk about the completely original look of the movie. Set in Detroit but filmed mainly in Texas, probably the most accurate way of describing the world of Robocop is "retro-futuristic," almost like the '80s have yet to happen. It can't be set in the '80s, because fictional, unexplained technology is seen and mentioned throughout the film. But unmistakable elements of the decade are still present: Robocop's scientist handlers are seen eating McDonald's in those great foam containers. There are payphones. The police vehicle of choice is a 1986 Ford Taurus. Women have big hair, and CRT televisions (all showing the same idiotic program) are everywhere. Some of these details may seem like anachronisms only in retrospect, but they serve to make the future/retro mashup of Robocop all the more intriguing.
The commercial for the VHS release states the movie is set in 1991, but that's never established on screen. According to the novel, the events of Robocop transpire from November 2043 to February 2044. The arcade game adaptation of Robocop has it that everything went down in 1990. In an interview, co-writer Ed Neumeier stated, "There was never a year on that picture and that was actually a big fight at the time because people kept asking me, 'What year is this set in?' And I kept saying, 'I’m not going to tell you.'" I think the ambiguous timestamp on Robocop is one of its most endearing qualities.
The first time I saw Robocop, I was in college. I'm guessing it was 2002. My friend Andre, who introduced me to the Breakin' films, had one of those pretentious classes in which everyone over-analyzes movies. (I took a few of those, myself. Like most of college, they were compete tripe.) He asked if I wanted to attend the class with him, and watch the movie. I had never seen Robocop, and didn't have anything better to do, so I grabbed my standard movie snack of Twizzlers and a Coke and joined him. I was shocked by the film's intensity, and mesmerized with the overall production.
Robocop received an R rating upon its theatrical release, but that day I witnessed the unrated director's cut. Unrated films are actually X-rated by default, and some X-rated movies rank as undisputed classics. (Check out my review of Day of the Dead, which falls into that category.) Contrary to popular belief, the X rating is not necessarily synonymous with pornographic content, and "XXX" is totally fabricated. X is the most restrictive rating that a film can be assigned by the admittedly arbitrary Motion Picture Association of America.
In the case of the director's cut of Robocop (and indeed for the theatrical release of Day of the Dead), an X would be bestowed for its brutal, unflinching violence. And just as we see in Day of the Dead, incredible practical (non-computer generated) special effects propel the story. Robocop is a treasure trove of movie magic, including some of the best stop-motion model and miniature work ever committed to celluloid. You can see what I'm talking about in the following clip of a wounded Robocop being pursued by his failed predecessor, the ED-209. (ED stands for "Enforcement Droid," and if you watch the credits until the very end, you'll spot a hidden joke.)
Robocop incorporates several fake commercials, scattered throughout the film. They're an original touch, and really amp up the movie's consumer culture satire. Everything from pacemakers to gas-guzzling cars are parodied, bundled with evening news-styled segments, which sometimes pertain to the events in the storyline. The two sequels also use the commercial angle, but by then it feels gimmicky, almost like an obligation. I particularly enjoy the following commercial from Robocop, as it plays off of Cold War paranoia.
The first film is the only exposure to Robocop you really need, but in fairness, 1990's Robocop 2 is surprisingly good. Weller reprises his role as the cyborg, as he squares off against his intended replacement... wait for it... Robocop 2! Written by Frank Miller of Sin City comic book fame, Robocop 2 was helmed by Irvin Kershner, whom you may remember as the director of The Empire Strikes Back.
Movies need great music, and the Robocop score is a classic in its own right:
Here's my Robocop movie treasury.
The first and third films are ex-Video King rental tapes. My best friend Luke and I had a blast watching Robocop the other day on my console CRT Zenith. Again, the second film isn't bad, and the third one is on the shelf solely to complete the set. Its PG-13 rating and a different actor (Robert John Burke) playing Robocop should have dampened any residual enthusiasm for the franchise, but in 1994, the Canadian-produced Robocop: the Series hit the small screen. Aired by Fox Broadcasting in the United States, the TV series lasted twenty-two episodes, and starred Richard Eden as Robocop.
I love the quote on the back of 1993's Robocop 3.
Did you really see the other two, Candy? And who are you, exactly? Answer: A local news anchor in Kansas City, Missouri. It's now an NBC affiliate, but at the time, KSHB was a UHF station. Small potatoes indeed. When a major studio production has to dig this deep to get a favorable quote, you might want to reconsider your viewing options. (Of course, Siskel and Ebert were for decades the gold standard of movie praise, and they are sorely missed to this day.)
While on a road trip with my dad to New Jersey in 2008, I picked up this three-dimensional Robocop movie poster by McFarlane Toys. Could it have really been that long ago? Crazy.
I almost made a grievous omission! Robocop Vs. The Terminator was a four-issue, alternate-universe storyline by Frank Miller's Dark Horse Comics in 1992.
There were tie-in video games for the Sega Genesis, Super Nintendo, Game Gear and Game Boy systems. Here's my copy, along with a Terminator mask I've owned since about 1992! I'm surprised it hasn't disintegrated.
Cyber-synopsis: If you like action flicks with great effects and complex story arcs, you can't go wrong with Robocop. It should go without saying, but don't bother with the 2014 remake, which makes Robocop 3 look like Citizen Kane. It firmly plants itself in 2028, completely missing the point of everything ever.
UPDATE: For some inexplicable reason, KFC has melded Colonel Sanders with Robocop for their new ad campaign! They even got Peter Weller to play the role. It's too bad his armor is obviously plastic, but you can't take something like this too seriously.