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RoboCop

by Glenn Erickson Nov 19, 2019

Extra-special extras adorn this stunning reissue of a modern sci-fi action classic. Paul Verhoeven’s sledgehammer of graphic-novel brutality and wicked political satire (courtesy of a Michael Miner-Ed Neumeier screenplay that should have won awards) hasn’t diminished one iota. We still feel like we’re being subjected to a shockingly ultra-violent entertainment from the future. Both versions are present, along with enough interview extras to make one feel personally involved in the production. Although later entries in the Robo franchise were marketed to children (we have the toys to prove it) this hard-action show expresses an adult-oriented rage against Reagan’s America. The filmmakers could have earned a lot more money making Robo un-political and kid-safe but instead chose to stay true to their radical concept.


Robocop
Blu-ray
Arrow Video Limited Edition Collector’s Set
1987 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 103 min. / Street Date November 26, 2019 / Available from Arrow Academy
Starring: Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Dan O’Herlihy, Ronny Cox, Kurtwood Smith, Miguel Ferrer, Robert DoQui, Ray Wise, Felton Perry, Paul McCrane.
Cinematography: Sol Negrin, Jost Vacano
Production Design: William Sandell
Special Effecs and Makeup: Rob Bottin, Peter Kuran, Rocco Gioffre, Phil Tippett, Harry Walton, Tom St. Amand, Robert Blalack
Film Editor: Frank J. Urioste
Original Music: Basil Pouledouris
Written by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner
Produced by Jon Davison, Arne Schmidt, Edward Neumeier
Directed by
Paul Verhoeven

 

Every so often we get an editorial about how the ‘crazy’ content of the 1976 movie Network has become the new normal in the devolution of broadcast TV news. The 1980s brought us similar prescience in Ed Neumeier and Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop. Its ‘media breaks’ seemed outrageously vulgar and biased, but reality has overtaken them 100%. Police departments nationwide haven’t exactly been privatized, but they have become thoroughly militarized with equipment suitable for fighting wars.

A major science fiction picture, Robocop is unafraid to let loose a shock and awe show. The earlier Mad Max pictures felt like exploitation cinema from the future, and the story of Murphy the cop likewise ignored the prevailing mainstream movie rules about restraint and ‘niceness.’ That of course had been a central factor in Paul Verhoeven’s previous movies from the Netherlands, which often dwelt on squeamish or unpleasant scenes. Robocop was so into ultra-violence that Orion toned down the original release to placate the MPAA and avoid the dreaded ‘X’ rating. The uncut version is still a shocking experience and not for the visually timid.

 

RoboCop is both the best and the most important Science Fiction film of the 1980s. It would seem to be influenced by French Métal Hurlant and other graphic novel comics. We’d seen nothing as extreme as Robocop’s blend of violence with humorous satire — Mario Bava’s Diabolik evoked comic strip dynamics but was also after a dreamy romantic nostalgia, similar to George Franju’s Judex. Verhoeven’s future is a direct political satire of the Here and Now, in Ronald Reagan’s 1987. The fantasy concept begins with material one might initially think was better suited for children, a robot-man who serves as an incorruptible and heroic policeman. But the thrills are far too adult for kiddies. Overstated gore and dynamic comic-book action make RoboCop both funny and disturbing: we laugh even when it hurts. Audiences thrill as RoboCop prevails over criminals on the streets and in the boardrooms. He’s an unstoppable Marshall Dillon in a Blue-Grey Kevlar Suit. The futurism is all political and all pessimistic: it’s the future of (gasp) privatization.

This synopsis is probably completely unnecessary. Exploiting a crime wave on the streets of Detroit, Omni Consumer Products Corporation steps into the breach with an offer to privatize the police force. OCP VP Dick Jones (Ronny Cox) has developed an ‘urban pacification’ robot called ED-209, but it has serious malfunction issues. To fill the gap while ED-209’s bugs are worked out, OCP’s CEO ‘The Old Man’ (Dan O’Herlihy) gives hot-shot junior executive Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer) the go-ahead on his competing RoboCop prototype program. It uses what’s left of the terminally-wounded policeman Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) as the basis for a surgically-constructed part-man, part-machine cyborg. Programmed to be the perfect patrol officer, the intimidating, bulletproof robot man lives only to enforce the law. His initial forays into the mean streets of Detroit are a remarkable success for OCP, but unforeseen complications ensue. Spurred by contact with his former duty partner Officer Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen), the ‘dead’ Murphy’s personality reasserts itself through memories of his lost family. Robo’s investigations eventually lead him to suspect a connection between criminal gangleader Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith) and OCP’s own Dick Jones.

 

Paul Verhoeven’s tight direction and Frank Urioste’s slick editing give RoboCop a steamroller momentum when operating in crime prevention mode. The movie slams forward like a juggernaut. Preprogrammed for any contingency, Robo confronts criminals and resolves problems with brutal efficiency, without hesitation. He also offers rape counseling to a distraught woman, and gives sober advice to admiring kids: “Stay out of trouble.” RoboCop is a worthy original — perhaps the best fantasy character since the heyday of the Universal monsters — because he overcomes an agonizing death and personal tragedy to reassert himself as a human being. The crooks can’t stop him, and neither can the malfunctioning ‘Made in America’ ED-sel of a robot. And even if Robo can’t take out Mr. Big, he has enough humanity to neutralize the worst of society’s enemies.

I once theorized RoboCop as an inside-out remake of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Using high technology and Reaganomics, a corporate elite is reorganizing America so big business can operate without limits or restraint. Private companies don’t have to worry about elections or be responsive to public opion. OCP takes economic control of Detroit by cutting funding to its police force and presenting itself as a better alternative. To frighten the citizenry into acquiescence, Dick Jones underwrites the criminal terror he’s supposed to be eradicating. OCP is a criminal enterprise, plain and simple — the Law is just another obstacle to be overcome.

Metropolis envisioned the ruler of its super-city as a financial Pharaoh, a one-man executive making dozens of decisions a minute. RoboCop proposes a wicked corporate Old Boy’s Club. Ambitious executives jockey for approval recognition from O’Herlihy’s supposedly benign Old Man, who pits them against each other to get results. The competing executives will murder each other to gain an advantage. Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner derive some of their satire from the old go-getter models in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and The Apartment — Miguel Ferrer’s Bob Morton eagerly seizes his access card to OCP’s executive lounge.

 

None of this political satire would work if RoboCop weren’t so well constructed and directed. Paul Verhoeven had gone off the deep end with his pointlessly grotesque Flesh + Blood but RoboCop gives his extreme fantasies a constructive outlet — his interviews usually begin with the statement that when he came from Europe he was shocked by how gun-crazy America was. Alex Murphy is an epic hero in that he ‘dies’ and is resurrected, a rite often portrayed in myth as a journey to and from the underworld. Verhoeven claims that Murphy is sort of a Yankee Christ, agonizing at the hands of the Devil (Boddicker) and returning to kick ass. In the penultimate scene, RoboCop even ‘walks on water.’ Reinforced by Basil Pouledoris’ dynamic, pounding music score, Robo is an intimidating metallic Golem when in pursuit of criminals: “Dead or alive, you’re coming with me.” Yet the score is stirringly emotional when RoboCop uses the remaining bit of his brain to remember his idyllic life with his wife and boy. That human connection is what went missing in the ambitious sequel Robocop 2.

 

“Guns, guns GUNS!” — now if that isn’t a fitting epitaph for what American culture deems important.

Writers Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner dote on gross-out hyperbole, providing great material for every goon and gunsel in their script. The cocky Miguel Ferrer sneers in the face of poor police sergeant Robert DoQui. Henchman Ray Wise (Twin Peaks) foolishly tries to kick Robo in his chrome steel crotch. The hapless Paul McCrane suffers a deliciously gross toxic-waste comeuppance, a scene that elicits the picture’s biggest, sick-est laugh. For additional stabs of satire, the action is frequently interrupted by those highly prophetic video ‘media breaks’ that feature disturbing TV commercials and cheerily depressing news anchors. The jokes aren’t flung about randomly — Neumeier and Verhoeven drive home their scathing political points. “America is Finished,” the movie seems to say: corporate skyscrapers may flourish in the city center but the grassroots American economy is all but dead. The big action finale takes place in an abandoned steel mill. Once a symbol of American industrial might, the gigantic edifice might as well be an Egyptian ruin, built for a purpose nobody remembers.

Paul Verhoeven worked within tight budgetary limits, but producer Davison saw to it that the central character RoboCop was not short-changed. The beautifully designed metal man functions marvelously, animated by Peter Weller’s rigorous pantomime. A battery of delicate sound effects suggest that Robo is actuated by hundreds of little motors, that constantly adjust his posture and gestures — he’s programmed to impress as a Mean Mother. Rob Bottin needed a full support crew to handle the complicated suit during filming. Robo’s movements were limited. For instance, he couldn’t enter or exit a car, something that’s well-hidden by Verhoeven’s prowling camera.

 

The effects makeup people go to a lot of additional trouble to also show Robo without his helmet. We see a recognizable Peter Weller, his own face faked to look like a mask over a metal skull. This was of course before CGI manipulation, and Bottin’s artful work took our breath away– who expected such subtlety after all the gory excess?

For better or worse, the IMDB lists RoboCop as Peter Weller’s number one career role; it’s leading lady Nancy Allen’s #2 title. Everybody seems iconic in the film: Miguel Ferrer’s convincing corporate snake, Kurtwood Smith’s criminal psychopath. For Ronny Cox, RobCop comes in right behind his classic performance in Deliverance.

The great classical actor Dan O’Herlihy had performed in several cinematic masterpieces (Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out, Luis Buñuel’s Las aventuras de Robinson Crusoe) and even made his mark in a strange example of ’50s Red-Scare sci-fi. Like the others, what comes up first on his filmography list is RoboCop. His great performance — paternalism run amuck — keeps Omni Consumer Products from becoming just another evil business conspiracy. Dan O’Herlihy practically holds RoboCop 2 together single-handed.


Arrow Video’s Limited Edition Collector’s Set Blu-ray of Robocop is not a new restoration, but a 4K scan from the original camera negative done by MGM in 2013 & approved by director Paul Verhoeven. I hadn’t seen Robo in full HD, and I liked this presentation quite a bit. We of course had the show on VHS and laserdisc back in the day, in low-res transfers that had a habit of blending the blues and grays of William Sandell’s production design into a a kind of bluish monotone. This HD image pops, and the improved contrast even helps out the slightly grainer rear projected effects in the stop motion scenes by Phil Tippett. The audio always commanded attention, and Arrow’s engineers give both the theatrical and extended cut a full selection of stereo, four-channel and 5.1 mixes.

Viewers with Blu-ray editions fewer than five years old may be more interested in the new extras on this release. RoboCop was such an exciting production that we were crazy about the added value items on ancient Criterion editions. Arrow’s extras are extensive — the list below helps explain which are new and which are ‘archive’ items from older editions.

The extras are spread across two discs; the package contains an 80-page book with essays and photos, a reversible poster and a set of miniaturized lobby cards. There’s also a RoboCop security sticker for one’s window (along with an ad for an upcoming Arrow Slaughterhouse-Five disc, which is happy news).

What’s new? New commentaries, one with Paul Sammon and another fan commentary; Interviews with Michael Miner, Nancy Allen, casting director Julie Selzer, Verhoeven’s second-unit director Mark Goldblatt, visual effects experts Peter Kuran & Kevin Kutchaver, and a piece with Jeff Bond, Lukas Kendall, Daniel Schweiger talking about the composer Basil Poledouris.

 

Ed Neumeier converses with filmmakers David Birke and Nick McCarthy on another featurette; and a panel discussion from 2012 gives us a full house of creatives — the director, producer, both writers, Phil Tippett, and Weller and Allen. Other items include four deleted scenes, a tour of a collector’s RoboCop props, a storyboard item with Phil Tippett, and the reel of outtakes from the gore scenes.

This is the first time I’ve heard Michael Miner talk about his input to the storyline, which reminds me of how often I’ve attributed the radical thinking in the movie solely to Ed Neumeier — Miner refers to the film’s theme as Predatory Captitalism. Some of the new featurettes are the work of Daniel Griffith, and they’re excellent — the cutting isn’t too jazzy, the graphics are super and all the speakers get to express themselves fully. It’s nice seeing Peter Kuran and Kevin Kutchaver explaining their backgrounds; the ode to Basil Poledouris made me think about film composing a bit more.

Three worthy longform featurettes were from a 2008 disc produced by Laurel Parker. Matte painter Rocco Gioffre gives us a rundown of his matte techniques and animator Phil Tippett shows his old Ed-209 animation model, which keeps falling apart in his hands. All of them explain how effects have changed. Elaborate props and matte paintings have adapted to fit into the digital age but Tippett doesn’t see a big future for stop-motion.

That’s just what’s on the unrated extended cut disc. Over on the Theatrical Cut Blu-ray we get another old commentary with Verhoeven, Davison and Neumeier, a pair of isolated score tracks, a full TV version of the movie, a versions comparison feature, and another piece on the Television version.

There is of course some repetition between the old and new material. When on the defensive, Verhoeven tends to argue that his extra gore is actually less disturbing: he’s subscribed to the Herschel Gordon Lewis argument, that it’s so exaggerated, it’s funny. We can tell that these filmmakers believe in what they’re doing, as RoboCop could have easily have earned ten times its money if it were more family friendly. But then it wouldn’t be the unique adult entertainment that it is.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Robocop
Limited Edition Collector’s Set
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: In the card sleeve: Six collector’s postcards; Double-sided fold-out poster; collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Omar Ahmed, Christopher Griffiths & Henry Blyth, a 1987 Fangoria interview with Rob Bottin, & archive publicity materials (some contents exclusive to Limited Edition
DISC ONE Director’s Extended Cut:
Archive commentary by director Paul Verhoeven, executive producer Jon Davison & co-writer Ed Neumeier; New commentary by film historian Paul M. Sammon; New commentary by fans Christopher Griffiths, Gary Smart & Eastwood Allen; The Future of Law Enforcement: Creating RoboCop, a newly filmed interview with co-writer Michael Miner; RoboTalk, a newly filmed conversation between co-writer Ed Neumeier & filmmakers David Birke & Nick McCarthy; Truth of Character, a newly filmed interview with Nancy Allen; Casting Old Detroit, a newly filmed interview with casting director Julie Selzer; Connecting the Shots, a newly filmed interview with second unit director & frequent Verhoeven collaborator Mark Goldblatt; Composing RoboCop, a new tribute to composer Basil Poledouris featuring film music experts Jeff Bond, Lukas Kendall, Daniel Schweiger & Robert Townson; RoboProps, a newly filmed tour of super-fan Julien Dumont’s collection of original props & memorabilia; 2012 Q&A with the Filmmakers, a panel discussion featuring Verhoeven, Davison, Neumeier, Miner, Allen, Weller & animator Phil Tippett; RoboCop: Creating a Legend, Villains of Old Detroit & Special Effects: Then & Now, three archive featurettes from 2007 featuring interviews with cast & crew; Four deleted scenes; The Boardroom: Storyboard with Commentary by Phil Tippett; Director’s Cut Production Footage, raw dailies from the filming of the unrated gore scenes; Two theatrical trailers & three TV spots; image galleries.
DISC TWO Theatrical Cut:
Archive commentary by director Paul Verhoeven, executive producer Jon Davison & co-writer Ed Neumeier; Two Isolated Score tracks (Composer’s Original Mix & Final Theatrical Mix); Edited-for-television version of the film, featuring alternate dubs, takes & edits of several scenes (95 mins, SD only); Split screen comparison of Theatrical & Director’s Cuts; RoboCop: Edited For Television, a compilation of alternate scenes from two edited-for-television versions, newly transferred in HD from recently-unearthed 35mm elements.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly?
YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Two Blu-rays in Keep case with extras and 80-page booklet, all in heavy card sleeve
Reviewed:
November 17, 2019
(6135robo)
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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.