As it did back then, the mixture of childish and silly comic book sensibilities with wholly disturbing graphic violence feels like an irresponsible problem child let loose to run amuck. In this case the child was Paul Verhoeven, the Dutch filmmaker who had made a name for himself in Europe with a number of salacious and trashy films about sex and violence.
Robocop (1987) dir. Paul Verhoeven
Starring: Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Miguel Ferrer, Kurtwood Smith, Ronnie Cox
By Alan Bacchus
In his first American film, Verhoeven brought a cold and dirty working class aesthetic to go along with his flare with the camera. He and DOP Jost Vacano’s visual palette is almost exclusively greys and blues, with little or no colour at all in the frames. Verhoeven's use of the steadicam is effective, a constantly moving camera which is more rough and shaky than the traditional smooth and elegant feeling of the device.
The performances are gritty and truly delicious, especially the baddies. Ronnie Cox’s despicable Omni Consumer Products VP Richard (Dick) Jones is awesome, but it's bested by Kurtwood Smith’s terrifying yet charismatic performance as the drug boss, Clarence Boddicker. Who can forget when he playfully blows Murphy’s hand off with a shotgun while singing, "Na-na-na-na-na"? Boddicker’s cronies, which include Twin Peaks alum Ray Wise and ER alum Paul Crane, are just as despicable and nasty. But it’s Miguel Ferrer’s performance as the egomaniacal creator of Robocop, Bob Morton, the epitome of white collar repulsive aggression, that is the most memorable.
The director’s cut, as Robocop fans know, is the ONLY version of the film they would be satisfied with. For those who haven't memorized the film, there are only a handful of frames added to the original, but it's enough violence and bloodshed to send the film way over the top. The most graphic addition shows the head of the Rob Bottin-created Peter Weller mock-up exploding from Clarence Boddicker’s fatal gunshot. Ouch.
I don’t know how much of the violence was in the script, but writers Michael Miner and Ed Neumeier certainly take an accurate pulse of the 1980s corporate malfeasance as well as Oliver Stone’s Wall Street did that same year, but with a more cooky and deranged comic book sensibility. Whether it's the privatization of the police - which has not yet happened, but a semi-privatization of the military/security in Iraq is not that far off base; the cutthroat corporate battle between the white collar assholes, Dick Jones and Bob Morton; or even good ol’ coke snorting off hooker's tits – it’s '80s excess to the max, and thank God for that.
I can’t imagine any filmmaker today getting away with the shocking level of violence and depravity from a tentpole film such as this. In today's climate Robocop would have been turned into a lunchbox-friendly kids' flick. But Black Swan Darren Aronofsky is currently tapped as the new helmer of the reboot, so the future looks bright for the franchise. Whether it actually comes to fruition is questionable.