On Its 30th Birthday, An Ode to RoboCop


“Nice shootin’, son. What’s your name?”


The final moments before Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 sci-fi/actioneer RoboCop rolls credits give me chills, no matter how many times I watch — and I watch it a lot. RoboCop is my favorite film of all-time, a proclamation that has elicited plenty of bewildered looks and some outright argument.

Not The Godfather? Not Lawrence of Arabia?

Nope. RoboCop is my favorite movie ever. Other films may be better made from a cinematographic standpoint, and others still are more celebrated either because of story or acting. I can appreciate that.

And yet, when it comes to rewatchability, nothing tops RoboCop for me. More importantly, the film meets every other criteria I look for in a film.

The characters are unforgettable. The titular lead, played masterfully by Peter Weller, inhabits a world in which almost everyone around him is angry, greedy, mistrusting or corrupt. He has a kindred spirit in Officer Anne Lewis, a fearless heroine and the only character before the film’s goosebump-inducing climax who sees Alex Murphy within RoboCop.

And Murphy, trapped inside an alloy body with a CPU for a brain, is more human and most of the humans around him.

Bob Morton, responsible for overseeing RoboCop’s creation, isn’t a hero in the classical sense.

He’s a reflection of the Wall Street greed and self-assurance prevalent in the era in which the movie was made, arrogant to the point of literally playing God — in the name of making more money, of course.

In this version of Detroit, however, Morton’s ostensibly a good guy — if only because the fortunate coincidence of his climb up the OCP corporate ladder is an actual hero.

The late Miguel Ferrer plays Bob Morton with a gravitas that would have made the character a fit for such titles of the era as Wall Street or Glengarry Glen Ross. Morton juxtaposes well with his chief rival in OCP, Dick Jones.

Jones is the mastermind of a hyper-violent and prolific gang, headed by Clarence Boddicker. The casting of thoroughly good guy Kurtwood Smith — an active participant with the Special Olympics and other charities away from the set — as a complete scumbag is brilliant. Smith owns the role, leading a marauding band of lawless, and seemingly bulletproof villains on a rampage through Detroit.

The calculating under-funding of the city police renders Detroit a Wild West for the black-hat Boddicker. He’s as cocky, as sleazy, as genuinely detestable as any antagonist from any era of cinema. But he’s merely a puppet to Dick Jones.

Character actor Ronny Cox appeared in numerous memorable titles of the 1980s and early 1990s: Beverly Hills Cop, Vision Quest, and in a role similar to Dick Jones in another Verhoeven film, Total Recall.

The cold-blooded Jones ensures the profits of OCP — a company that monetizes prevention of crime — by generating crime. It’s a prescient insight into the direction of our culture. Though a company may not be so active in profiting off crime prevention as to funnel weapons to street gangs, the privatization of prisons has created an industry reliant on high crime rates, and thus legislation that encourages disproportionate sentencing.

I hold the film in such high esteem in large part because of this prescience, which echoes throughout the plot. The stop-motion effects behind Dick Jones’ death and the failed Enforcement Droid Series 209 may not hold up 30 years later, but the social and political commentary tucked into the film’s action and ultraviolence.

This is recurring theme among Verhoeven’s more fondly remembered work, including Total Recall and Starship Troopers. RoboCop nails it perhaps better than the rest.

OCP’s reign over Detroit sows discord — and that’s by design. The OCP-owned police force are left intentionally one step behind the criminals in Old Detroit, while the OCP-manufactured Delta City provides refuge for those who can afford to move there.

The monetizing of public services is of particular importance in 2017. So, too, is the TV newscast that overloads its audience’s senses without providing any actual information. RoboCop debuted in cable news’ infancy, and its depiction of smiling anchors offering 5-second snippets on genocide in foreign lands came to fruition in recent years.

Astute social and political commentary can only carry a film so far, however. A movie that can provide this level of insight and remain entertaining is in rare company. RoboCop achieves that with intense action sequences throughout and quotable lines.

More than anything, the audience has reason to invest in the hero’s journey of Alex Murphy.

Depicted as a good officer and family man in the opening sequence, the tragedy that transforms Murphy into RoboCop provides your investment in the hero’s journey.

So, too, does Weller’s performance. Weller is so perfectly robotic as to be wholly believable in that regard, yet brings a humanity to the role that fuels some of the most emotional scenes in cinematic history. Yes, HISTORY.

Seriously; I can’t watch the open house scene and not get just a little dusty.

When I write Peter Weller deserved an Academy Award for nailing this duality, it’s with zero hint of irony.

The completion of his hero’s journey is pitch-perfect. RoboCop’s ultimate showdown with Jones at OCP headquarters resolves Murphy’s revenge plot, but that’s surface-level compared to the journey of regaining his humanity in an otherwise inhuman world.

The quote with which I led this column are the film’s final words. RoboCop, no longer wearing his metallic visor so as to show the face, the flesh-and-blood of Alex Murphy, smiles and says his name. “Murphy.”

It’s the perfect ending for what is to me the perfect film.

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