There are few action movies that actually have a message, point, or any subtext whatsoever. The average action movie usually just has a hero fighting a bad guy, with some explosions, or if you are Michael Bay thousands of explosions, and getting the girl in the end after stopping the big bad. In the 80s these were a dime a dozen and no one was really rocking the boat for the genre. This all changed when Robocop was released in 1987.
For the uninitiated, Robocop is the story of Alex Murphy, newly transferred cop to Old Detroit. He is killed by some criminals, however OCP, the large corporation that just purchased the police in Detroit is experimenting on new technology in law enforcement. They take Murphy’s body and rebuild him as Robocop. Murphy becomes a hero, avenges his killer, and the day is won for justice.
Robocop at first looks like a standard action movie, gorier than most sure, but if you explained the plot to the average person it would sound like a generic action movie with a little sci-fi thrown in. It’s in execution where this movie shines. It does new things, and has a message that it expresses in a subtle, clever way. The following is the top ten reasons why the movie Robocop is awesome.
Note: Some these clips have intense language and violence and may be NSFW.
10. Violence, No Punches Pulled
One of the big points about Robocop is its violence and gore. During its theatrical run some groups claimed the movie was too violent. This argument later aided in making the sequels, Robocop 2 and Robocop 3, much less violent and not as visceral in its gore effects, for the few they still had. This of course, was one of the many reasons fans of the original were unhappy with the sequels.
There were also complaints it was violent for violence’s sake, I and many fans argue otherwise. In a story about criminals overrunning Detroit, cop killers, and corporate greed; violence, especially brutal graphic violence, is necessary to get the point across. The point being that in a world where the bottom line is king and sleazy 80s business men value money over human life, brutal death would be common place as long as it makes the rich richer. If the violence was toned down this commentary on greed would be lost, and a large element of the story and thesis of the film would be eliminated.
9. Concept: Police Being Privatized
The main thesis of the film is the fear of privatizing the police, and the danger of large corporations having virtually limitless reach. This of course is a commentary on the privatizing of the military that occurred in the Reagan era, creating what is known as the military-industrial complex. Essentially, if a business owns the military, do they owe loyalty to the state, people, or the company that owns them? This is explored in a scene after Robocop faces Dick Jones at the OCP building and is ambushed by his fellow officers under orders from Dick.
The bigger piece of this theme in the film overall, is the Directive 4 arc. Directive 4 is a program that means Robocop cannot harm or apprehend a senior OCP officer. This makes him the perfect product, no chance of backfire.
The setting of Robocop is perfect. Detroit in the not too distant future is riddled with crime and drugs. The rich are on the top and the poor are on the bottom. It is a great analogy for what happened when the car industry went bust there in our own time. The lighthearted news and commercials on TV contrast excellently with the gritty raw world the movie takes place in. The world of Robocop is not exactly real, I mean it still is a sci-fi action movie, but it is a great satire for the world of the 80s, and even our own current surroundings.
7. Murphy’s Death/Robocop’s Creation
As mentioned earlier, Robocop is violent, usually, for the theme of the film, humor, or commentary. However, the death of Murphy early in the movie is brutal, graphic, and not played for laughs. We are given enough time with him to learn how he acts, his quirks, that he’s a family man, and to all around like the guy. Thus, when he dies it is more emotional to the audience, and when we see the following scenes of his creation, from being rushed into the hospital, to where he takes his first steps as the mechanical man that is Robocop, we witness the dehumanization of his character first hand.
6. Blending Genres
When I explained the concept of Robocop to a friend of mine who never saw it, I said it was Lethal Weapon meets Wall Street, with a dash of Terminator. What I meant was that at the film’s core it is an action movie, but it is also has echoes of a corporate greed story, and of course the robot elements of science fiction.
What I find most astounding is that all these seemingly random pieces blend extremely well. I have seen many movies try to blend one genre with another and fail miserably. A perfect example being the Star Wars prequels, where the tone of the film is inconsistent, and scenes will jump from violent, to slapstick, to romantic at very awkward times. It is very difficult to straddle multiple genres and themes, while staying consistent in tone and delivery. Robocop succeeds here where others failed.
5. The Ending
The final battle in Robocop is easily one of my favorite fights in movies. Sure, there isn’t any great choreography, and it doesn’t have spaceships locked in combat, but it’s the sheer brutality in the fight, and every villain in the film getting such grisly comeuppance for their evil deeds that make it truly satisfying. Plus, the guy who get’s drenched in toxic waste is to this day one of the funniest death scenes in movie history.
The line Murphy gives, “They fix everything,” is a great line summing up his whole experience in the story, as well as continuing with the theme of corrupt and inept corporations, with the half-hearted delivery of “they.” The epilogue scene with Dick after this is a great cap for the film, finding the grand flaw in Directive 4, which essentially makes you vulnerable to Robocop if you’re fired. The ending wraps everything up perfectly without feeling forced.
The main draw to come back to Robocop after these many years is the humor. The satire of the media and corporate society as mentioned earlier is portrayed in small scenes scattered in the film. These being lighthearted news segments, describing horrifying news, and advertisements for products mocking pop culture. The funniest and most memorable fake commercial is for “Nukem” a “Battleship” style game, except instead of sea war is simulates thermonuclear holocaust. Fun for the whole family!
One of the most important aspects of this action movie that brings it a step above the generic 80s action movie is good actors. Like Die Hard, everyone in this movie does a great job playing their role to the fullest. Also like Die Hard, the tense action scenes balance well with the humours ones, kudos from the casting department to find the right cast to balance this tone.
The most impressive performance in the film, in my opinion, is Peter Weller as Murphy/Robocop. The early scenes showcase his likability, and humanity. When Weller is in the suit despite his character talking robotic and moving as such, there are subtle hints of humanity in his movements and speech pattern. Not to mention being able to play the “man to machine” character better than most.
2. One Liners
As mentioned before, the humor pulls the fans back to Robocop. This is done in a wide array of one liners from different characters and scenes. Some as simple as Murphy’s “Dead or alive you’re coming with me,” more a line of character growth than humor, but still one I have heard said off hand on occasion.
There are many others that I can list for days, but the most famous is the “I’d buy that for a dollar,” guy. Essentially, he is a recurring character from a terrible comedy show of some sort. The audience never gets a context for the line, but it is clearly one of those catchphrases sitcoms desperately throw out to merchandise the program. It works however, since characters in the movie throw the line out in conversation, another way to give the world of Old Detroit depth, and comment on the pop culture of the time.
1. Clarence Boddicker
Clarence Boddicker, played by Kurtwood Smith, Red from That 70’s Show fame, is the main villain of Robocop. He is easily one of my top favorite movie villains of all time. He is clearly having so much fun being an evil maniac. He has menace in his words, behind a slick smile and hilarious delivery. Plus, I love how he is bald and has glasses, but still acts like he is the coolest guy around. He doesn’t try to gussy himself up; he knows actions speak more than appearances. He is such a rare villain in look, delivery, and tone and sadly I wish more villains were as out of the box as him.
That is all I have. Robocop is an excellent film, and should be in any action movie fans collection. But, it goes deeper than that, it has a message, something to say about society, culture, politics, and even humor. Few movies even today try to have a thesis in execution, a main point to come back to when all is said and done. Also, it doesn’t bang you over the head with its message; it’s subtle behind a layer of blood and bullets to get to its deeper core. For those who haven’t seen Robocop, and read this far, check it out you will not be disappointed.
by Michael Curran