RoboCop set the tone for much of Dutch auteur import Paul Verhoeven’s career in America, and not just because of Kurtwood Smith’s curt command “Bitches leave!” It was a relatively low-budget, high-concept satire in the guise of a relatively high-budget, low-concept trash-a-thon. But it was so broad about its satiric aims—privatized, corporate America buying and selling not only the populace’s safety, but also its endangerment, thereby exponentially increasing their profit margins—that practically no one who would want to parse the flick for its subversive streaks wanted to take the film seriously. Or to not take it seriously. Or to see it as anything other than fodder for everyone who would just as soon buy that (and, well, everything) for a dollar.
Set in a future immediate enough to still be crippled by Reaganomics, RoboCop opens with the shambles of a Detroit police force losing officers to street crime by the dozens. They and the entire industrial-military complex are owned and operated by Omni Consumer Products, a behemoth corporation whose V.P. is secretly organizing and funding the underground crime and drug racket in order that the demand (and asking price) for their law-enforcement ops shoots as high as their Blade Runner skyscrapers. Though that’s merely the malfeasance of one bad apple, it’s not as though the endeavors of those on the up-and-up are much more noble. The corporation’s prime directive isn’t really to help reform and rebuild Detroit so much as it is to build an entirely new, heavily guarded city for the haves while posting burly cybernetic droids at the perimeter to keep the have-nots at bay. (The last half of George A. Romero’s similarly satirical Land of the Dead may have actually taken place in this urban oasis.)
Corporate backstabbing and a remarkably strong-willed newbie cop combine in the right place at the wrong time (i.e. when said cop gets blown away on his very first day) to allow the creation of a secret human-robot hybrid. Verhoeven juxtaposes RoboCop’s faint pulse of self-recognition against the backdrop of a dehumanizing socio-economic nightmare. (One that’s not all that far removed from reality in any era, such as the scene where a thug mocks the pointless ambition of a college student studying plane geometry while moonlighting a night shift as a gas station attendant.) But he also couples his skilled filmmaking vulgarity with a very literal vulgarity. When RoboCop comes to the assistance of a poodle-headed woman about to be sexually assaulted in a back alleyway, his keen trigger finger manages to take out the would-be rapist’s crotch by carefully shooting the bullet through the victim’s skirt—right between her thighs. Never has a gesture of chivalry seemed more…icky. Verhoeven’s best and most vulgar American work was still in front of him, but RoboCop still stands as one of the most rude-tempered, rollicking gobs of spit in the face of 1980s politics this side of John Carpenter’s They Live.
MGM unleashes yet another transfer that can’t quite compete with the long out-of-print Criterion Collection edition. The one aspect it has going for it that Criterion didn’t is that it’s anamorphic. (Criterion released their disc in DVD’s infant years, when anamorphic was apparently still considered a luxury even for hyped-up Hollywood action flicks.) It’s not entirely a step down, as the colors on the MGM disc are a little bit cooler and more nuanced. But the Criterion appeared sharper and was presented in Verhoeven’s preferred aspect ratio of 1.66:1. (Here we have 1.85:1, and some shots bear every hundredth of that difference.) The sound is sharp, though bass readings aren’t as gregarious as one would prefer.
The extras on the first disc are identical to those found on MGM’s previous, single-disc RoboCop DVD (as collected with the other two films in the trilogy), some of which (if memory serves) appeared previously on the Criterion edition. In any case, the commentary with Verhoeven and his producers is intelligent without being stuffy, a description that would easily apply to most of Verhoeven’s films. There are a handful of featurettes (running anywhere from 10 minutes to over a half-hour), though the most fascinating thing about them all is trying to date which video version they came from based on the amount of hair and number of chins accompanying the talking heads. Deleted scenes (none of which go on longer than a minute or two), photo galleries and other promotional materials round out the first disc. The second disc contains the unrated director’s cut and another trio of featurettes that are, as far as I can tell, new additions. Best of all is the set of interviews with the film’s cast of villains, which entails basically everyone but Peter Weller and Nancy Allen.
A mammoth collection of glittery extra features and a hard metal case protecting a questionable transfer, the new RoboCop is like the DVD version of Delta City.