SPOILER WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS
In a dystopic, but recognizable future Detroit, powerful corporations are primed to “bring back Detroit” with an unexplained plan that will yield 2 million jobs. The only thing standing in the way is that the city is overrun by violence and chaos -- some of it by organized mobsters (led convincingly by two Nineties tv Bad Dads: Twin Peaks’s Ray Wise and That 70s Show’s Kurtwood Smith) as well as legions of rogue junkies, robbers, rapists and murderers. The city (a laughably non-existent presence, directives are given straight from military contractors) hires Omni Consumer Products, an ultra-vulture capitalist group who have a track record of profitizing organ donation, space travel and marine life. OCP is now diversifying their portfolio with robot local law enforcement technology.
When Alex Murphy, an exemplary police officer, is brutally murdered by street thugs he is posthumously volunteered for a bold new experiment -- a cyborg police officer! With the training and dedication of a top-shelf human police officer but none of the pesky union requirements like sleep, dignity or a pension plan.
Rife with Vietnam allegory (executives in a penthouse boardroom congratulate themselves on “controlling the civilian population” for the greater good), Philip K. Dick themes (this android does indeed dream, but not of electric sheep) and a scathing critique of capitalist excess (the latest luxury car from Detroit is the 6000 SUX) -- Verhoeven treats Robocop with straight-simplicity, giving no winks to its absurdist plot elements.
Made in 1987, RoboCop’s reputation of hyperviolence hasn’t softened with age. People aren’t just shot, they’re ripped in half by machine gun fire. A wouldbe assassin isn’t just apprehended, he’s dumped in a vat of industrial toxic waste (in an abandoned factory, natch) then exploded. In the closing scene, our hero is impaled, has a ton of bricks dropped on his head and is then resurrected (walking on water, no less) to give absolution to the sinners. It’s this grandiose approach that has made Paul Verhoeven’s name a punchline in some erudite circles, but there’s a gruesome integrity to his work. It should be hard to watch someone be murdered. And it should also be imbued with more value than a plot point.
There’s an old-fashioned sensibility to the ‘white hats vs black hats’ depiction of a police force that is egalitarian, incorruptible and ever-valiant in their efforts to pull back their city from disaster. While fighting increasingly brutal violence on the streets, they’re also being stripped of their benefits and eventually total job security. When their jobs are on the cusp of becoming fully mechanized, there is talk of striking -- which is treated with genuine introspection about the role public servants play in civilians’ lives. In the current climate of hero-protagonists soaking in self-loathing, obsessed with and ultimately corrupted by the unquestionable deceit within traditional institutions, it’s (oddly) sweet and pleasant to see an action film that offers a worldview beyond “FML”.