To view RoboCop, nothing if not the ultra-violent, anti-capitalist mecha-Christ allegory of 1987, and then watch its two subsequent sequels, released in 1990 and 1993, respectively, is to be smacked in the face by how underappreciated Paul Verhoeven has been for a greater part of his career. Coming off a handful of fascinating Dutch films, including the excellent Soldier of Orange and The 4th Man, Verhoeven set to work on the futuristic RoboCop, from a script by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner, after being scorned by history. His English-language debut, Flesh + Blood, concerning a gang of mercenaries kidnapping the daughter of a noble lord in early 16th-century Italy, severely underperformed upon its release in 1985. Though not without its positive qualities (it has many of Verhoeven's chosen themes but handles them with kid gloves), Flesh + Blood has the unmistakable feeling of a transitional work among its reckless medieval violence.
Assumedly still licking his box office wounds, Verhoeven was hesitant to take on RoboCop until his wife convinced him otherwise; it had previously been dumped by Alex Cox in favor of the venomous and virile neo-western Walker. The story of RoboCop still sounds mean and dumb: Murphy (Paul Weller), a cop working in the fictional city of Old Detroit in the near future, is shot to death by an all-powerful drug gang and is subsequently used as the guinea pig for a campaign to create robotic cops launched by OCP, an all-powerful corporation. Placed in a hulking mechanical body, Murphy becomes RoboCop and serves his civil duty without sentimentality until a flash from his memory, helpfully jostled by his ex-partner, Anne (Nancy Allen), sends him on a tear against the gang, their leader Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith), and his profit-mongering cronies at OCP.
Initially dismissed by The New York Times as nothing more than a violent action spectacle with muddled messages yet simultaneously hailed by Ken Russell as the best science-fiction film released since Metropolis, RoboCop remains a bold and feral black comedy, a bleak satire on corporate excess and capitalism and, finally, a sly doppelganger of America's favorite film genre. Buoyantly self-aware, the film's covert critique of action films, in the guise of an action film, reached so far as to cast media vixen Leeza Gibbons as a vacuous newscaster and Ronny Cox, a fatherly presence in the popular Beverly Hills Cop series, as a ruthless corporate agent and a cold-blooded killer. The film's most pervasive quality, however, is its wild vision of corporate excess and the extinction of the working class, whether it be in the skeletal, emptied factories that serve as action sets or the litany of brilliant commercials for fake products (best in show: a Battleship-type board game called Nuke'Em).
An unqualified box office success, RoboCop was seen, generally, for the same reasons the movies it was making fun of were seen, but its anger landed as loudly as one of its eponymous hero's mechanical hoofs. The human had become a product, but Verhoeven was viscerally rooting for the rebellious nature of the human race. In comparison, RoboCop 2 was a deranged and cynical cry that wore its dour, acidic politics on its sleeve loudly—a trademark of Frank Miller, the creator of Sin City and the film's co-writer, along with Walon Green. The sequel, directed by Irvin Kershner, posited our hero (Weller again) at the epicenter of a drug war, facing him off against Cain (Tom Noonan), a lunatic drug czar and creator of a high-grade opiate known as Nuke, but it also saw the CEO of OCP (Dan O'Herlihy), a figure slightly redeemed by the end of RoboCop, turn into a villainous figure along with the rest of the corporate lineup, which included an ambitious new consultant (Belinda Bauer).
Miller's hyperbolically cruel take on the corporate mindset, not a hard view to take in the harsh daylight of post-Reagan America, was understandable, but his script went on overkill patrol quicker than the bumbling, destructive ED-209 droid. The film was often cartoonish (Cain's right-hand-man is a murderous prepubescent), but, as handled by Kershner, wasn't even slightly funny. The tone had swung from self-aware to a certain sentimental self-satisfaction, so much so that RoboCop became a minor character in comparison to the decayed moral landscape. A lively dialectic on the concept of corporate efficiency and humanism had become a tasteless joke told without a lick of comedic sense. Its shots included a few aimed at bleeding-heart liberals (a panel of special interests convinces OCP to turn RoboCop into a tree-hugging role model), but it was all too obvious that the film had perched itself above everyone with an undeservedly smug sense of importance fueling its confused, deplorable politics.
By the time RoboCop 3 rolled around, the leftist idealism had mutated once again. Written by Miller once again and directed by Fred Dekker, RoboCop (now played by Robert John Burke) had become the leading soldier for a leftist terrorist organization, after befriending a little girl (Remy Ryan) orphaned by OCP's militaristic security force. Miller had, in the wake of RoboCop 2's palpable sadism and heartlessness, gone soft and turned RoboCop into a sentimental figure—an ultra-lefty terrorist revolting against a humorless, uncaring corporation-as-government. Dekker, a toothless practitioner responsible for The Monster Squad, took away the danger of RoboCop 2 and replaced it with big, obvious messages told in a tone suggesting that the series' main demographic had swung from adults (RoboCop originally received an X rating) to those who had yet to enter high school. Boring and thoughtless, RoboCop 3 put a bland corporation, personified by Rip Torn, Bradley Whitford, and the Japanese character actor Mako, in direct opposition to science, personified by the far more aesthetically pleasing Jill Hennessy, and felt unmoved to complicate this ideal with any concept of character or narrative nuance.
What had begun as a hopeful, high-grade satire, in which the corporation failed to eradicate the persona of the working class, had become a puff piece that stripped that character of his conflicted personality and sold him as a false prophet of immense force, rebellion, and, ultimately, peace. This decline in artistry, given the fundamental limits of the series, could have been seen as inevitable, but this somewhat blunts just how unique a talent Verhoeven is; a nearly identical debacle faced Verhoeven following his fantastic Starship Troopers. Verhoeven is something of the next logical step in a line of directors that reach from Howard Hawks and John Ford to David Cronenberg, Joe Dante, and Richard Kelly—commercially viable directors who imbued tired B-movie structures with their own personal idiosyncrasies. Like those directors, Verhoeven has had some less successful works (Hollow Man springs to mind), but you can always see a singular artist at work in his films, a facet of filmmaking both overlooked and sorely missed in a great deal of the modern marketplace.
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It saddens me to report that the original RoboCop is presented in the same antiquated MPEG-2 transfer that it received upon its release in 2007. Clarity is suitable but soft in several areas, and though the color spectrum is upheld, blacks are noticeably blotchy and gray. Graininess is also an issue but one, I suspect, that is due to the film's production rather than lack of effort on MGM's part. The substantially less watchable sequels, ironically, are presented strongly in 1080p/AVC-encoded transfers that vastly improve all the problems with the first film's transfer. Colors and textures are all exemplary and the clarity of the image is far more detailed and focused. There's a similar trajectory with the audio track. The first film's balance of music, atmosphere, and dialogue is efficient, but everything in the subsequent sequels is given a heightened immersive experience. The fight scenes in RoboCop 3, though bloodless and safe, produce show-off levels of clarity.
Paul Verhoeven's fantastic commentary from the Criterion Collection DVD version is, sadly, not duplicated here, but then neither is anything else, unless you count HD theatrical trailers.
If nothing else, The RoboCop Trilogy should afford sufficient proof of the immense differences between Paul Verhoeven and the trigger-happy, run-of-the-mill action directors he is often lumped in with.