In the midsection of 1988, I got sick. I do not mean just sick like a flu, cold, or some other transient virus. I mean sick to such a degree that I stopped being afraid that I might die, and started to fear that I would not. Over a period of two or three weeks, I lost approximately two thirds of my bodyweight.
Before clicking on the jump, take note: much waxing poetic about the incomprehensible awesomeness of this film will follow. Although some elements will be kept unspoken, this will reveal much about the story. Given that the number of times I have watched this film now may even number above a thousand, that does not bother me. However, it might bother you, so consider yourself warned.
As much as the relationship I have with my male parental unit has fallen apart, he did do one thing right during this time. After a two-week stay in the hospital and coming home, just trying to find a way to cope with the situation, he and I went and rented a few VHS tapes from a local corner store. And the one that I had been curious to see ever since I read a hilarious but sendup in MAD Magazine. Being that I was very much feeling that I wanted to punch the living shit out of multiple staffers at the school I was attending, I thought I had enough projected fantasies revolving around violence in my head at the time. Remember, I was all of ten years old at this time. And I was wrong. Paul Verhoeven, a man who was no more than four or five years old when he was seeing the corpses of his countrymen being hung out in public as a message to the Allies, set me straight about that one.
You see, the film that I managed to talk my male parent into renting on my behalf so we could pass a couple of the hours I spent adjusting to life with diabetes was called RoboCop. When the script for RoboCop was doing the rounds in the studio system, people were put off by the title. The story from Ed Neumeier has it that when Paul Verhoeven picked up said script and read about ten pages of it, he threw it across the room. His feeling was that he was not really interested in going to America to make what he believed would be a B-level science fiction exploitation type of film. But his wife, Martine Tours, picked up this script from the floor, read through it herself, and pointed out to Paul that there were layers to it that he missed on his initial reading.
Were there ever. You see, like all films that a boy no more than ten years old can watch, and keep watching until he is nearly thirty-five, and still find novel aspects of, the script was built like a Chinese puzzle box. One could open and remove the first box, and find a smaller, but otherwise identical box inside, and so on until the box was so small it was barely visible. So Paul Verhoeven went to America and began filming in the Summer of 1986.
By all accounts, making the film was hell. The man who copped the worst of it was probably Peter Weller, who had the fun task of donning the RoboCop suit. Even discounting the fact that the completed suit did not move the way that had been anticipated, it eventually became necessary to install air conditioning in the suit for Weller to be able to healthily perform in it. So in other words, as Weller was performing as the titular cyborg, he was getting one example of how sick children feel as they contemplate mortality.
Just as a hero can only be as good as the actor playing them, they can also be hobbled by carrying a bad sidekick, or enhanced by working with a great one. Officer Anne Lewis, as played by Nancy Allen, is an awesome sidekick. Although she is not shown to be the most competent or unmessable-with police officers, she is very much a proxy for the heart and soul of the titular cyborg. She is the one who, after realising who this seemingly invulnerable special officer really is, continually addresses him like he is an actual person.
There is one scene with the supervisor of the project to create and implement RoboCop, a smug corporate executive called Robert Morton (Miguel Ferrer). Lewis, having tried to communicate with RoboCop moments ago, protests that she did not “question” the cyborg, just asked him his name. Semantics aside, Morton demandingly makes one thing clear to Lewis. That RoboCop does not have a name. This will become important in a scene later on. In fact, it pretty much is the basis of the story from this point going forward.
Much of the middle act in the film concerns itself with RoboCop’s search for two answers. Specifically, who he is, and why his nightmares are dominated by the form of a man who bears an odd resemblance to Heinrich Himmler (in fact, this is one reason why Kurtwood Smith was cast in the role). The scene in which Lewis attempts to talk to RoboCop, pretty much telling him his name in the process, ends with RoboCop telling her that he has to go, somewhere there is a crime happening, as an executive from the coporation chases him, yelling at him to stop. And he is right, there is always somewhere where there is a crime happening (on a planet of four billion people (that’s what the figure was in 1987), there not being any crime occurring is an impossibility).
But the crime that RoboCop interrupts in the course of his unscheduled patrol turns out to be just the right one for story purposes. Emil (Paul McCrane), one of the men who killed Alex Murphy, is holding up a fuel station. This is an interesting sequence, not simply because it prompts questions about how out of control crime must be in Detroit for a man who is part of a small organised crime gang to be holding up a station on a whim. The fuel station attendant, who bears a sort of hybrid resemblance between Ed Neumeier and a younger Paul Verhoeven, was reading and working from a book of plane geometry when Emil decided, seemingly on a whim, to ride up and rob the place. So when Emil asks what the attendant is reading and gets a truthful answer, Emil begins to laugh. “You a college boy, or something?”, he asks, before supposing that the attendant thinks he is pretty smart, then asking if said attendant thinks he could outsmart a bullet before proposing that we find out. As Emil seems to get increasingly aggressive toward the terrified attendant, RoboCop pulls up, gets out of his car, and aims his trademark pistol, simply telling Emil to “drop it”.
Now, when RoboCop states to Emil that dead or alive, Emil is coming with him, this visibly sets off an alarm bell for Emil. Just before he and his gangmates killed Murphy, Murphy told him the very same thing during the attempted arrest procedure. So Emil declares that he knows “you”, and starts firing, screaming “we killed you!”. This obviously rattles RoboCop quite a lot, and he stops moving to arrest Emil, playing back his recordings of Emil telling him he is dead, and that “we” killed him. Emil has time to throw a lit cigarette into the fuel that is spilling around the station after one of his bullets cut a pump’s hose and sent fuel pooling all over the place. The realities of how fuel stations work aside for the time being, RoboCop regains his compose as Emil is speeding away on his motorbike. A couple of well-aimed shots to the bike later, and Emil speeds straight into the back of a car.
Stepping out of the now-burning ruins of the fuel station, RoboCop walks over to Emil’s prone body, picks him up, and asks him, quietly, “who are you?”. Emil is not in the best shape, having been flung off the motorbike whilst it is travelling at the kind of speed reckless wanton criminals travel at when trying to flee a super-police officer. So Emil’s only response to the question is, of course, to groan helplessly like a man who has just been flung off the motorbike whilst it is travelling at the kind of speed reckless wanton criminals travel at when trying to flee a super-police officer. And RoboCop repeating his question with emphasis, “who… are you?”, only elicits more of the same response.
Ed Neumeier said something in the audio commentary to the effect that finding out one is dead by reading it on a computer screen seemed like a futuristic touch when he was writing the script. But the way it is executed in the film makes it so much more. Every image of Emil’s known associates hits like a flying brick, helped in no small manner by one of the late Basil Poledouris‘ finest scores. Especially when the visage of Emil’s most well-known associate is seen. When RoboCop pulls up Clarence’s felony rap sheet, going through the cavalcade of crimes for which one would expect a man to be executed almost but not quite stretches the plausibility factor. And then the listing of Clarence’s being a suspect in the murder of officer Alex Murphy is pulled up with Lewis’ words (“Murphy… it’s you”) echoing in our ears, and then we see a police profile of Murphy.
This prompts one of the greatest scenes in which a hero is confronted with the full scale of his loss. Going to the old house that the Murphy family used to inhabit, RoboCop strolls through the now-deserted house and, as he picks things up or walks to specific locations within, has flashbacks to the life that was taken from him. We see Alex’s son, Jimmy (Jason Levine) watching a TV show in which the protagonist does the gun-spinning re-holster that becomes RoboCop’s signature move. “Can you do that, Dad?”, Jimmy asks. But the real bombshell is when Alex’s wife, Ellen (Angie Bolling), confronts him / RoboCop’s point of view as he enters the bedroom, exclaiming that she really has to tell him something. The last words we hear from her in the film as the camera zooms so close we can almost see into her pores are “I love you”. And RoboCop is hopping mad as he returns to the house’s entrance, with the salesman-screen asking him hurriedly if he has thought it all over. The salesman-screen, clearly having no idea what is going on, even punctuates this with “why not make me an offer?”. Which RoboCop responds to by slamming a fist into the screen with enough force to cave it in (those CRT-based jobs required quite some force to cave in).
It is worth jumping backward in the story at this point, just for a short time, to explain a point that is very fundamental to the story. You see, whilst we have an assload of laws and rules that govern our society, their volume is such that even the judges who render the “final” decision about how they be applied need to sit down and read them extensively before coming to that decision. It should therefore come as scant surprise to anyone old enough to understand this point that the police officers who are generally the first to respond to a crime also have the least knowledge of the laws they are enforcing. This brings about an interesting question. Could a cyborg, a living machine, given encyclopedic knowledge of the law, do the job any better? I think this would require a certain amount of programming trickery. Ed Neumeier seemed to believe that a set of rules that the titular cyborg would be made to regard as absolutely inviolate was the answer. So, during the close of the first scene in which we see the RoboCop suit, the cyborg’s creator, Morton, asks it to recite its Prime Directives. I will list them now with a creative interpretation concerning how they are implemented in the film:
I. Serve the public trust.
Of RoboCop’s directives, this is both the most memorable and the most vague. According to his statements about it in the audio commentary, Ed Neumeier came up with this one when he read it on the paper in a fortune cookie. Yes, that is what he really said. Much could be written about its actual or intended meaning, but I will share the way I interpreted it as a ten year old boy, and the way I interpret it now. They are not that different from one another.
To me, “serve the public trust” has always meant that the people who pay the taxes to fund the police service are to be served. Although I did not understand it as fully as I do now, the sentiment has always applied.
You see, the arrangement shown as a basis for the film, a private corporation gaining control of the police force that patrols the city in which they are based, is somewhat like a private corporation gaining control of the army that defends the country in which they make their home. It is a case of the parasite having complete control of the host. A worm having control of the Human or dog that it is sitting around in the bowels of.
So RoboCop is basically programmed with the onus that whatever he do or however he interprets the law, it must reflect the interests of the people who pay taxes in the nation that he is a part of. This is an interesting directive for him to be programmed with, given the circumstances in which he came into being.
II. Protect The Innocent
This is a far more obvious and narrow directive. It also figures far more directly into the plot of the film, at least in so far as establishing RoboCop’s initial warm reception from the public. After the introductory sequence, RoboCop goes out on his first patrol, during which he gets three calls, or comes across three scenes, depending on how you look at it. The first is an armed holdup of a convenience store. A pair of semi-elderly ma and pa grocery store owners are forced to call for help when a man goes into their store, pulls a gun, and holds it on them, demanding they open their safe. RoboCop turns up and subdues the robber, causing more money’s worth of damage than the robber would have gotten away with had he been allowed to escape.
The second sequence in this trilogy is not an easy one for some to watch. I get that. Two men, clearly not the top shelf in terms of men any woman with prospects would say a word to, are chasing after a tall blonde woman, screaming at her and generally annoying her at volumes that make one wonder where the hell any witnesses are. But just as one of them is about to start cutting up her dress with a knife, RoboCop pulls in with his car’s headlights turned up well beyond high-beam, and pulls his gun. Leaving aside what the script might have originally called for, the version of this shot that ended up in the film has RoboCop firing a burst that goes through the victim’s dress and manages to hit the would-be rapist holding her in the groin.
The third scene in this sequence is also a classic, for a number of reasons. A scene begins with a disgruntled and ousted city councilman holding the mayor and much of his staff hostage. When RoboCop wheels onto the scene and emerges from his car, the press more or less goes apeshit. I forget what order these lines go in (well, not really), but as RoboCop is going into the council building, the officer in charge, one Lieutenant Hedgecock (Michael Gregory), asks RoboCop where he thinks he is going. “Keep him talking,” RoboCop says in response, without interrupting his walk to the council building entrance. As he is about to start climbing the steps, however, one enthusiatic reporter calls out the question “are you invincible?”.
III. Uphold the law
This is the most specific and not open-to-interpretation of RoboCop’s directives. By now, you will have guessed that there is a certain amount of conflict and confusion between each directive. Serving the public trust and upholding the law are becoming mutually incompatible in this day and age.
As a good example of this conflict, the middle act of the film concludes with a raid on a cocaine factory. Clarence and his remaining associates visit this factory in order to “negotiate” the purchase of a lot of product. Clarence makes known a desire for a “volume discount”, so he is clearly catering at Charlie Sheen‘s next party. Once the disagreement starts to take on an appearance of being settled, however, the iron-clad door in one entrance begins bending and pounding, audibly. When it crashes to the floor, RoboCop steps in, targets several of the people in the factory who are holding weapons (I always interpreted this as storing their locations for later use) and then tells all present to come quietly, or there will be… trouble.
Needless to say, this results in a gargantuan shootout during which RoboCop, with bullets bouncing off him in spectacular amounts, guns down almost everyone in the factory. The notable exceptions are the Clarence minion called Joe (Jesse D. Goins), and Clarence himself. Joe is knocked from an overhead walkway when Steven Minh (Calvin Jung) is killed and swings his shotgun into Joe’s face in the process of dying, knocking Joe into a one-story fall that ends with him landing in a box full of shipping-ready cocaine.
Upon cornering Clarence, however, RoboCop does not merely kill him. Reading Clarence his Miranda rights (and being interrupted with a spit in the face at one point that is a classic in itself), he proceeds to throw Clarence through a series of plate glass windows. After the third one, Clarence, clearly frightened for his life, reveals to RoboCop that there is another conspirator in the whole thing, the reason he is out in the daylight in spite of having killed enough police officers to fill two rural stations. Dick Jones (Ronny Cox), the senior Vice President of the corporation that made RoboCop, is that reason. As RoboCop is strangling the shit out of Clarence, his directive program kicks in and reminds him that this compels him to pay Dick a bit of a visit.
IV. (Classified) at first, later revealed to be…
During the awesome scene in which RoboCop originally recites his Prime Directives, we see from his point of view that there is a fourth that happens to be classified. As RoboCop makes his way to and through the OCP building, we see a number of inserted shots of Jones looking oddly calm and smug. And as RoboCop goes into the arrest procedure, we see distortions in the POV shots, and RoboCop suddenly going into jerking about like a drunk being electrocuted.
This is when Dick Jones informs RoboCop, and the audience, that Directive Four is his own little contribution to RoboCop, an insurance police. If RoboCop attempts to arrest a senior officer of Omni Consumer Products, the company that financed the making of Murphy into RoboCop, he will shut down. Well, whilst that rules out arresting Jones and putting an end to the madness for the time being, RoboCop is not inclined to just lay down and switch off. So Jones brings out one of the full-robots he designed that was going to be a police unit rather than RoboCop (it’s a long story I am not going to repeat here… watch the film).
How RoboCop defeats ED-209 in spite of its superior firepower and other advantages in this sequence is a surprise I will leave for viewing the film. Suffice to say that when RoboCop returns to the parking lot, he is confronted by hundreds of police officers led by Lieutenant Hedgecock. As he is ordering them to prepare to fire, several officers recognise RoboCop and protest, reminding Hedgecock that this cyborg in front of them is one of them. When Hedgecock repeats that “we” have orders to “destroy it”, these officers walk off in disgust. The rest, after the order, proceed to fire so much ammunition into RoboCop that I lost count literally five seconds into this sequence. Although he was looking a bit battered at the start of the sequence, as RoboCop falls from one level of the lot to another (and another), he is so dented and full of holes that whether he really will die is a question legitimated in many a first-time viewer’s mind.
But he happens to fall into the path of a police car, and the person driving that car is none other than Lewis, who immediately proceeds to help him into the car and drive away as fast as she can. Although she is far from the best officer on the force, she is like a guardian angel to RoboCop. This rescue is segued with one of the best Media Break style interrupts I have ever seen. An advert for the car that Clarence drives, the 6000 SUX, in a style that makes very clear how far down the toilet American automative engineering has gone.
So both sides regroup for the final act. Clarence, in an act that parallels the blatant corruption of today’s America, walks straight into the OCP offices in which the fight with ED-209 has just taken place. OCP employees pass by, and the word “remodelling” can be overheard at one point. After Clarence “hits on” Jones’ secretary, a woman named Barbara (Joan Pirkle, who if the IMDB information is accurate, married Kurtwood Smith a year after the film’s release), he goes in to see Jones.
Jones, as it turns out, is not very happy that Clarence informed RoboCop that he is providing legal protection to Clarence’s criminal activities. A heated discussion ensues in which much is made of people calling Dick Jones “Dick” in a derisive manner. Well, at least he can comfort himself with the face that his surname is not Face. But I digress. The end result is that Clarence has to take what remains of his merry band and destroy RoboCop. As anyone who has watched the film up to this point will have guessed, this is not going to be anywhere near as easy as it sounds. Clarence asks Dick if “you” have access to military weaponry. Dick’s response is simply that “we” (OCP) practically are the military.
So Clarence and his gang reconvene at the height of the strike that the police enact in order to protest the extreme cost-cutting measures that OCP have enacted in order to make the police force “efficient”. As hardcore criminals run through a minor commercial district throwing large items through storefront windows, Emil, Leon (Ray Wise), Joe, and Clarence get together, shot stores with explosive bullets, and eventually pack up and drive to the steel mill in which RoboCop is effecting repairs to himself.
At this point, it is also worth noting that a lot of the best shots in RoboCop were just happy accidents. One of the end shots in the commercial district riot scene I have just described is an example. As Ray Wise bangs his fist on the roof of a 6000 SUX and yells at the rest of the gang to cut the horseshit, the rear-view mirror inside the car detaches from the arm holding it to the car’s ceiling and falls off. And it is not like this is some detail you have to rewatch the film to notice. It happens right in the middle of the frame (more or less) as these villains are getting into the cars.
So the gang of bad guys pull into the steel mill moments after RoboCop uses Lewis’ assistance to recalibrate his targetting system. RoboCop, after having his urging to leave the scene rebuffed by Lewis (“hey, we’re partners…”), tells Lewis to get the car. Given that the villains make no attempt whatsoever to conceal themselves as they enter the mill, it should surprise nobody that after a distraction that only the most green soldier would fall for, RoboCop shoots Joe dead and departs as quickly as he can (basically, not very) whilst Joe’s comrades vainly shoot back at RoboCop, wasting approximately half a dozen shots in the process.
As they drop Joe’s body to the ground, Leon runs out on foot in front of RoboCop, firing a shot at the cyborg as they walks. Of course, the shot goes wide, and Leon runs off in a different direction that we never really see. RoboCop, for his part, continues to walk through the mill until Emil and the panel van catch up with him. “Okay! Now I got ya!” Emil yells as he begins to speed toward RoboCop. So RoboCop fires a burst into the windshield that Emil ducks away from and, putting on a rare burst of relative speed, dodges away from the van. “Now ya don’t!” audiences chuckle as Emil and the van speed straight into a large metallic silo on which the words “toxic waste” can be clearly seen. A large wash of liquid that looks like sudsy water mixed with shit bursts out of the back of the van, taking Emil with it.
Oh dear Odin, this was a moment. As the liquid soaks into the ground behind the van and Emil gets up, we see very clearly that all is not right with him. As he begins to wander, screaming a whiny scream like that of a man who has just had his voicebox sliced in half, or melted, we follow him for a moment as he walks aimlessly, looking for any help he can get. Eventually, he crosses paths with Leon, hoarsely whispering “help me”. Leon, of course, tells Emil not to touch him, and promptly runs away.
Meanwhile, Lewis has done just as Murphy asked and got the car. She uses it to chase after Clarence in his 6000 SUX. During the case, as the two cars pass on a path to one side of the camera’s focal point, a hubcap detaches from one car (the timing leads me to believe it is from the 6000 SUX), which promptly bounces along toward the camera and swoops over said camera, missing it by what appears to be a margin of inches as a whooshing sound is heard. This goes back to one well-known quote by Ed Neuemier about Paul Verhoeven‘s directorial style. One director that people like to hold up as a paragon and thus I will not mention by name here, Neumeier explains, “is a visualist”. As Neumeier puts it, this director wants you to see it, study it, draw some big conclusion about it and so on. Paul Verhoeven, on the other hand, is a visceralist. Paul Verhoeven wants his audience to leap out of their chair, screaming that the next one might hit them. This shot exemplifies the fact.
So when Emil, still screaming and melting, staggers into the path of Clarence’s car, it results in yet another awesome shot in a film overflowing with them. Clarence turns his attention back to where he is going, yells out “ahhhh” when he notices Emil in his path, and yells “shit” like a sneeze when his car more or less cleanly slices through Emil, sending Emil’s head splattering upon the windshield and pretty much blinding Clarence for that moment. In fact, from this point going forward, that is what I will refer to as a RoboCop Sneeze. “Ahhh… shit!” Not surprisingly, he loses control of the car and ends up in a pit. There is a brief interlude with Clarence shooting Lewis repeatedly, RoboCop stopping Clarence before he kills Lewis, and then Leon using a crane to drop enough support-beam metal upon RoboCop to crush two football teams and their tour buses. And yet RoboCop still will not die. Clarence, frustrated about this, even rams a steel spike into RoboCop’s chest, where his heart would normally be.
This results in RoboCop using the spike that he normally uses to interface with computer terminals as a melee weapon, ramming it into Clarence’s neck. After a massive blob of blood so dark it can only be arterial lands on RoboCop’s chest, Clarence, snarling, staggers away and falls down dead, recipient to one of the greatest exit stage lefts that has ever been shown on film. RoboCop and Lewis exchange some words concerning the latter’s condition, RoboCop lifts the support steel that is pinning him down (well, sort of), and speeds off to OCP headquarters.
Upon entering the boardroom in the middle of Dick Jones’ speech about how they will meet each new challenge with the same aggressive attitude, RoboCop is greeted with gasps, panic, and apprehension from all of the attendees bar one. OCP’s CEO, referred to in the film only as “the old man” (Daniel O’Herlihy), asks sincerely, “how can we help you, officer?”. RoboCop answers, so coldly and calmly that you would think he was describing the visual appearance of a drop of water escaping a tap, that Dick Jones is wanted for murder. This starts flashes of the Directive Four warning from his POV, but given all of the damage he has sustained in the last half-hour, the system obviously knows better than to mess with him. Again, polite and calm as if he were addressing his best friend, the old man asks what RoboCop’s evidence is.
When RoboCop plays back part of his recordings of his earlier meeting with Jones, showing Jones implicating himself in the murder of Morton, Jones loses his cool (even more so than was the case in the rest of the scene) and takes the old man hostage. The old man, raising his voice in the true sense for the first time in the whole film (and thus proving Nicholas Meyer‘s rule about how raisings of your voice are much more effective when you space them out a bit), fires Dick. Elbowing Dick in the gut, the old man quickly ducks out of the way whilst RoboCop draws his gun, shoots Jones repeatedly, and sends him out a plate glass window to a hundred-plus story fall. (Now, if you have forgotten Morton’s earlier edict to officer Lewis, here it is again: he hasn’t got a name. He has a program, he is our product, and so on.)
RoboCop holsters his gun and begins to walk away as the old man resets his shirt a bit, turns to RoboCop, compliments him on his shooting, and asks his name. The first test cut of the film had scenes subsequent to this one, in which the audience was informed that Lewis would be okay and such. These were jettisoned after the creative team witnessed test audiences shout out in more or less exact sync with Peter Weller‘s voice as RoboCop answered the old man’s question: