RoboCop – 25 Years of The Future of Law Enforcement
by Ben Bussey
Beware of spoilers ahead – but come on, if you haven’t seen RoboCop what the hell have you been doing?
We’ve seen a fair few landmark films celebrate major anniversaries so far this year: 25 years of Nightmare on Elm Street 3 and Evil Dead 2, as well as 30 years of New York Ripper, Cat People, Basket Case, Conan the Barbarian and The Thing. But for me personally, the film celebrating its silver jubilee today, having opened in US cinemas on July 17th 1987, is more of a landmark than any of those. It gives me great pride to say that Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi/action/black comedy masterpiece RoboCop was my first real 18.
In case any of our non-British readers need an explanation – cue the obligatory contemptuous glance down the nose at any ignorant heathen who doesn’t know our customs – the 18 certificate is second only to the R18 (which covers hardcore porn, and in any case didn’t exist back in the 80s) as the highest, most restrictive certificate a film can receive from the BBFC, making it basically equivalent to the MPAA’s X and subsequently NC-17, although it also tends to cover the more ‘Hard-R’ movies; and I think we can safely count RoboCop as one of those. Now, when I say it was my first ‘real 18,’ I should explain that I had already seen at least one 18-rated film to my recollection, which was Alex Cox’s Repo Man*; a great film for sure, but one that hardly warrants an 18 given that it received the rating based purely on the amount of swearing (a move not unheard of nowadays, but considerably less common). Of course, a pre-teen boy such as I was then isn’t going to complain about the level of profanity in a film – there’s nothing bigger, cleverer or funnier than rude words, after all, and no weapon more vital on the fledgling battlefield that is the playground – but at that age, we longed to see something more. Not boobies, necessarily; interest in those matters had not quite emerged yet, and girls were still very much the enemy. No, what we really wanted was violence. We knew there was more to it than we’d seen on TV. He-Man and Lion-O swung their swords around, but the bodies of their enemies remained intact. The A-Team fired about a million rounds an episode but nobody ever got shot. Roger Moore might unload his Walther PPK on a roomful of anonymous baddies, but all they ever did was fall to the ground clutching their chests. There had to be something we were missing…
And I found out just what that missing something was the afternoon I sat down in the front room of a school friend whose gloriously lax parents, very much unlike mine, let him watch whatever he wanted (which rapidly made him the most popular boy in school). I still remember the trepidation I felt the moment ED-209 came clunking dinosaur-like into the OCP boardroom. That aggressive visage, the ominous motorised hum, and of course those gargantuan guns; such an incongruous sight in the enclosed, clean, ostensibly civilised corporate setting. I vividly recall my own panic and sense of impending doom as that nitwit exec, having unwittingly ‘volunteered,’ half-heartedly threatens ED-209 with the .45 Desert Eagle; an imposing handgun under most circumstances, but wielding about as much defensive power as a pea-shooter under the circumstances. That 20 second countdown may well have been the longest 20 seconds of my life, knowing full well they were going to end badly. My heart thumped, adrenaline surged – and I struggled not to giggle. And then…
Yep. Granted, the above clip is from the director’s cut, and it wasn’t quite so drawn out and excessive in the theatrical/VHS version I saw that day, but still… it was never like that on The A-Team. Truly this was the stuff a ten year old boy’s dreams were made of.
RoboCop is one of those films that could only be a product of the 80s. In many ways it really isn’t too hard to see why so many people were uptight about what constituted family entertainment back then, when you consider that there were, amongst other things, action figures and cartoons of Rambo, Chuck Norris, and of course RoboCop himself. Obviously the concept of a half-robot crime fighter was always going to appeal to kids, and only in the 80s would such a concept be blatantly marketed toward them, despite the source material being so flagrantly inappropriate for that age group. As such, it’s not really so surprising as some would claim that further down the line in the series the producers opted to tone things down for a family audience… but the less said about that the better. We’re not here to mourn RoboCop’s decline; we’re here to celebrate his glory, in his first and (by a very great margin) best film.
Of course, while it was the guns, gore and F-bombs that had my younger self spellbound, it wasn’t until I was a little older that I came to realise just how much more is going on in RoboCop. The true gift of Paul Verhoeven (insofar as his American work is concerned, at least) is how he can put together a film with mass appeal which may at a glance appear to be the most intellectually redundant schlock imaginable, but on closer inspection proves to be a biting satire on most of that which is held dear by mainstream western society, and above all the US. From an outsider perspective RoboCop could easily seem the ultimate Reaganite dream, boasting as it does a hard- bodied gun-toting alpha male hero with a zero tolerance attitude to lawbreakers. However, it doesn’t take a doctorate in media studies to recognise what an assault on Reagan’s America the film really is.
We’re presented with an alternate reality in which the corporations control everything, and as always the primary corporate interest is profit. These yuppies pull the strings from on high in their futuristic ivory towers, with the best suits on their bones and the best Bolivian export up their noses, whilst at ground level the city is in a state of extreme disrepair, with civil unrest and violent crime everywhere the eye can see. In the midst of this, one decent cop finds himself working the roughest beat in town, and winds up bullet-ridden and dismembered on his deathbed before his first day is over. But as a police officer, he sold himself over to the company as soon as he signed up. OCP own him and can do what they want with him. Indeed, they had specifically reassigned him to a high casualty precinct as he was deemed a ‘prime candidate;’ for him to meet his death was all part of the plan. Next thing you know, what little remains of him is resurrected in a high tech mechanical exo-skeleton, and the company send him out on the pretext of fighting the crime which they are in fact complicit in. His memory and personality are gone, and he exists for no other reason than to do his job, with neither the promise nor the expectation of getting anything in return; exactly what those at the top of ladder would prefer of those at the bottom. A dystopian vision of the future in the 80s, and here we are in 2012… the absence of cyborg police officers aside, none of it seems too outlandish does it?
But let’s not make RoboCop out to be something it isn’t. We can go on about these serious themes and more besides – Verhoeven’s well-documented take on the material as a Jesus allegory, for instance – and make the film out to be some harrowing work of hard-hitting social commentary. But the real power of satire is that it takes all the forces of oppression and reduces them to nothing by making fun of them. The underlying absurdist humour of RoboCop is what really makes the film work; it’s a very, very funny film indeed, from the ridiculous yet eerily plausible TV commercials advertising designer heart replacements and family board games about nuclear war, to the councilman who takes city hall hostage with an Uzi, his demands including a bigger office and fancier car. Then there are the shady goings-on at OCP. Co-writer Ed Neumeier has said that half the fun was to take the archetypal 80s yuppies, who were perpetually adopting a military vernacular – insisting they were going to kill, destroy or blow away their competitors – and then show them literally trying to murder one another (not a million miles from American Psycho, then). Hence the wonderful conflict between Ronny Cox’s big bad Dick Jones and Miguel Ferrer’s up-and-comer Bob Morton, neither of whom is ultimately any less despicable than the other. Speaking of underlying humour, one thing I never picked up on until recently is that, as their confrontation occurs in the executive bathroom right after Jones leaves a cubicle – i.e. presumably straight after he’s taken a dump – Jones proceeds to grab Morton by the hair without having washed his hands first. He’s essentially stink-scalping him.
And boy, as gripping and amusing as that scene plays in the theatrical cut, for me it’s never been funnier than in the edited for TV version shown by ITV back in the 80s and 90s. To bring up Repo Man again, one of the great selling points of that film’s recent Blu-ray edition was the option to view the TV version, which is possibly even funnier than the original given that most of the “fucks” become “flips” and the “motherfuckers” become “melon farmers.” I truly wish there was a DVD of RoboCop that did likewise, as some of the replacement words were just hilarious. In the previously mentioned scene, Jones says of the Old Man, “once I even called him AIRHEAD!” Earlier, Morton exclaims to RoboCop, “you are gonna be one bad mother CRUSHER!” When the guy who holds up the convenience store opens fire on RoboCop, he repeatedly cries “WHY me!” And at other times, the film’s other notable big bad Clarence Boddicker yells “shut YOUR FACE up!” as well as “your company built the FREAKY thing… I don’t have time for this BALONEY!” And perhaps most notably of all, arguably the most celebrated line in the film becomes – “LADIES, LEAVE!”
Just what is it about “bitches leave”? How did it become the most frequently quoted line in such a heavily quotable film? It’s just one tiny morsel among the veritable salad bar of trash talk that makes up most of RoboCop’s dialogue. Clarence Boddicker alone has many other great lines, a couple of my personal favourites being “can you fly, Bobby?” and “ooh, guns guns guns!” So how did “bitches leave” became the iconic line? I suppose there are a number of key factors. In common with “I’ll be back” and “GORDON’S ALIVE?” it’s one of those lines that I don’t believe was ever consciously intended to become a catchphrase; the fact that, within the context of the film, it is kind of a throwaway remark adds to its perceived coolness. It also stands out that bit more as it’s the one line of dialogue uttered by the usually motormouthed villain in that particular scene. And of course, there’s the actor himself. The gleefully maniacal Boddicker is such an uncharacteristic role for Kurtwood Smith, generally cast as the straight-laced intellectual authority figure. (I used to make-believe as a younger man that Boddicker actually was the dad from Dead Poet’s Society, who turned to a sadistic life of crime having been unable to process the guilt of driving his theatrically-inclined son to suicide. Ah, youth.) In a curious way, though, the scene may actually demonstrate a hint of humanity in Boddicker; after all, he could easily have just gone ahead and murdered the models along with Morton. Does he have any real reason to let two witnesses live? Is it so they can go on to tell the tale, keeping his legend alive in the time-honoured fashion – or is it a display of mercy? Well, even if Boddicker is being merciful to the women, he’s doing it with a dash of his signature cruelty, dismissing them in such an unnecessarily rude and mean-spirited fashion. “Bitches leave,” honestly – does he kiss his mother with that mouth?
But enough about the baddies – sure, no great action movie is complete without them, but so too are they incomplete without great goodies. Nancy Allen’s Lewis, though surely the least developed of the core ensemble, is one of the best female characters in genre film of the time. Never overtly sexualised yet not de-feminised either, her gender is never made out to be a hindrance; as such, those who would accuse Verhoeven’s work of being misogynistic should take Lewis into consideration (not that the portrayal of women in Total Recall, Basic Instinct or Showgirls is quite so easy to defend). Indeed, the cops overall are the most sympathetic, relatable characters in the whole film, with a particularly endearing turn from the late Robert DoQui as the take-no-shit Sgt Reed. Neumeier has recounted his trepidation attending an advance screening for the LAPD, fearing the cops would be offended at how their profession was portrayed, but ultimately it went down gangbusters. And no wonder; in a story world riddled with corruption, the police are portrayed as the only people of real honour and principle. Would we be so ready to accept that representation today, I wonder…
And then, of course, there’s the Future of Law Enforcement himself. Whether we buy into Verhoeven’s Christ analogy or not, from the little we see of Murphy prior to falling under the bullets of Boddicker’s gang and the gizmos of OCP’s boffins, we’re given the impression he’s an inherently decent, salt of the earth guy next door. When he’s reborn as RoboCop, our reaction is complex. On the one hand, we’re mournful for the man who has lost everything and angry at the criminals, both street and corporate level, who stole it all from him; but on the other hand, good golly gosh he’s a badass. Yes, his look and characterisation – indeed, the tone and content of the film overall – owe a sizeable debt to the comic books of the time, with Judge Dredd and The Dark Knight Returns often noted as particularly influential, but RoboCop really is his own beast; a futuristic knight in shining armour, who retains a sense of honour, nobility and – yes – humanity, in spite of the atrocities going on all around him.
So much of that soul is down to Peter Weller. It’s hard now to imagine that Rutger Hauer, Michael Ironside and even Arnold Schwarzenegger were considered for the part, as – questions of physical suitability aside (the guy in the suit had to be skinny) – surely none of them could have brought that sense of purity and vulnerability that Weller brings to it. Look at his quiet self-satisfaction as he practices his cowboy quick-draw moves while Lewis buys coffee; even though he soon proves to be an efficient marksman and ruthless killer when necessary, there’s something so un-macho, even nerdy about him. When Boddicker’s gang blow him away, it really does hurt to watch, and when he removes his helmet in the final scenes it’s still quite a shocking and upsetting sight. Crucially, we are on his side from beginning to end. Every inch the blue collar everyman, Murphy is what we might now regard – if you’ll excuse me using the topical buzzword of the day – the embodiment of the 99%. The suits have fucked him over for all he’s worth to benefit themselves; we feel his pain and loss, and long to see him get his payback. And when he does, boy is it rewarding. When Murphy finally pumps Dick Jones full of lead and sends him out the skyscraper window, he’s hitting the 1% where it hurts for all of us.
Verhoeven and Neumeier both tell heart-warming stories on the DVD commentary of attending public screenings and hearing the audience reactions at the end; as the Old Man asks RoboCop his name, audiences roared “Murphy” in unison then burst into applause. A quarter of a century later, the film still has that power. All genre considerations aside, RoboCop is truly one of the best American movies of – and about – the 1980s, and there’s almost nothing about it that is not still relevant today. This being so, I won’t deny a cautious curiosity in how things develop with the upcoming remake. Of course it’s pretty much inconceivable that José Padilha’s film will in any way improve on Verhoeven’s, but given how heavily the themes still resonate there is at the very least scope for an interesting new take on the material. As to whether it’ll be anywhere near as fearless, hilarious, intricate and electrifying as the original; well, I wouldn’t buy that for a dollar…
And one last thing that’s amazing about RoboCop: the anthemic score by Basil Poledouris. What a shame neither the trailer for the original theatrical release nor the Blu-ray saw fit to include it.
*As a footnote, it was only whilst researching this article that I learned Alex Cox had at one point been in line to direct RoboCop, as well as later being offered the sequel. To think the man I grew up knowing as the host of Moviedrome might have been responsible for two of my watershed films. Perhaps Jones and Boddicker were right: good business is where you find it.