I still remember the weekend “RoboCop” came out. I didn’t see it in theaters during its original release, but I can recall seeing the image of Robo stepping out of his police cruiser and the brilliant tagline, “Part Man, Part Machine, All Cop” in a newspaper ad. I knew I had to see the film. I’d just have to wait awhile. I didn’t see “RoboCop” until it landed on cable. I must’ve been about 8 or 9, maybe a little young for all the carnage on the display, but what the heck. All the Reagan-era lampooning sailed over my head, but I was still able to appreciate the story of Alex Murphy (Peter Weller), a police officer killed in the line of duty and resurrected as cybernetic law enforcement drone, RoboCop. RoboCop’s a seemingly unstoppable man-machine, but soon he begins to remember fragments of his past while on the trail of the vicious criminals who murdered him. Ultimately, he uncovers a criminal conspiracy within the corporation that built him, avenges his own death and regains his identity. Cue Basil Poledouris’ triumphant “RoboCop March.”
What could’ve been a generic, big-budget actioner is actually a biting satire of 1980s excess in Paul Verhoeven’s brilliant cyberpunk Frankenstein film. With a RoboCop statue(!) being erected in Detroit, and a “RoboCop” reboot being fast-tracked at MGM, I think it’s high-time we have a look back at where it all began with the 1987 film.
Verhoeven’s first English-language film successfully blends elements of Phillip K. Dick with vigilante cop movie grit. He also takes time out to spoof the quirks of our media-saturated culture. How many movies have news breaks and commercials baked into the narrative? That they could easily be mistaken for actual hard news and TV spots is all the more hilarious.
“RoboCop” didn’t end when the credits rolled on the first film. No, with the success of the original, a franchise was all but guaranteed; this was the 1980s, after all. Verhoeven turned down the opportunity to direct the first sequel and the late Irvin Kershner — helmer of “The Empire Strikes Back” — was brought on board. The script was written by comic book wunderkind, Frank Miller, hot off “The Dark Knight Returns” graphic novel. With that mix of talent, one would imagine nothing short of greatness. Unfortunately, “RoboCop 2” is a bit of a mixed bag. I like it well enough as a b-picture, but I think it diminishes RoboCop’s character by simply having him accept early on that he is a machine after all, negating his arc in the first film. Weller wisely didn’t return for the PG-13 “RoboCop 3.” The less said about that film — directed genre vet Fred Dekker (“Monster Squad” and “Night of the Creeps”) — the better.
Diminishing returns plagued the RoboCop franchise on the big screen, and the film series has been dormant for almost 20 years. Throughout the late-’00s, Darren Aronofsky circled a remake of “RoboCop.”. If anyone could pique my interest in such a project, it would be him. Aronofsky, however, has since moved on to “The Wolverine.” Now Brazilian director Jose Padilha is attached to the remake. I’m not familiar with Padilha’s work, but his film “Elite Squad” has been added to my Netflix queue. The last time a filmmaker who was relatively unknown Stateside tackled “RoboCop,” it was Paul Verhoeven. Maybe we’ll get lucky again.