During his 13-year sojourn in Hollywood, Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven made six feature films, of which no fewer than four are satires of American culture. Two of them were written by Joe Eszterhas, and they are satires of the prurient/prudish American obsession with making everything about sex except for sex: Basic Instinct and Showgirls, and the writer wasn't in on the joke at all. Two of them were written or co-written by Edward Neumeier, and they are satires of the American commitment to the believe that no problem is so sophisticated that you can't solve it with a fuckton of violence, as well as the broken-down system of media consumption that permits such simple-minded amorality to thrive: RoboCop and Starship Troopers, and the writer was absolutely in on the joke, though it's not always clear that the audience was.

The best of these, and honestly not by any small margin, is RoboCop, also the earliest; coming out in 1987, it was just Verhoeven's second English-language film (the allegedly forgettable medieval epic Flesh + Blood - I have not seen it - preceded it by two years; it also doesn't "count" among his Hollywood films, as it was a Dutch, American, and Spanish co-production), though you'd never be able to tell from how adroitly he handles the verbal fireworks of Neumeier & Michael Miner's screenplay. In a decade where the action quip attained its highest levels, RoboCop still manages to stand out for its iconic dialogue: speak to any American action film lover of an appropriate age the line "Dead or alive, you're coming with me", and it's next to a dead certainty that you'll be admonished for not using the appropriately robotic tone in delivering those words.

But I haven't taken us all the way back to 1987 just to toss out lines of dialogue. If that's all you're looking for, then bitches, leave. What I am here to do is to praise one of the altogether sharpest genre movies of a generation, as well as gawk in amazement at a film whose vision of a near-future Detroit turned into a blasted-out hellhole that's half war zone, and half playground for unscrupulous corporations to remake civilisation in the image they prefer, remains just as incisive in the 2010s as in the 1980s. I don't know if it's a sign of the film's prescient genius that it feels like it's nailed so much of what would continue to get worse in the intervening quarter century, or if it's just fucking depressing.

RoboCop posits a future in which the Detroit PD and just about everything else has been privatized and handed off to Omni Consumer Products, a bland name for a wholly amoral company trying to develop a new kind of robot law enforcer, a giant killdroid called ED-209. This metal beast is the brainchild of OCP senior executive Dick Jones (Ronny Cox), who finds himself humiliated in front of the company's head man (Dan O'Herlihy) when the ED-209 kills a member of the board during its presentation. This leaves hungry young executive Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer) with an opening to plug his brainchild, the RoboCop program, in which the brains of deceased veteran police officers are inserted into android bodies in an attempt to marry the best of machine invulnerability and human ingenuity.

He's about to get his first test subject: savvy officer Alex Murphy (Peter Weller), newly assigned to the worst part of Detroit for reasons he's not clear on, ends up entering the dilapidated building on his very first mission with new partner Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen), and finds himself on the wrong side of deranged druglord Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith). Murphy is killed so violently that there's barely anything left to keep on life support long enough to pack it into Morton's beloved RoboCop suit. Once that's done, though, the remains of Murphy are unleashed in the world to great good for the beleaguered city, as RoboCop doesn't merely cleanse Detroit of its low-level rapists and muggers and high-level gangsters, but even begins to make strides against the crude corporatist fascism of OCP itself.

It's easy to harp on the film's robust social commentary like that's the only thing that matters, so let me take another tack: RoboCop is an exquisitely-made piece of pop cinema. Take, for instance, the chain of scenes involving Murphy's death and rebirth: the way that Verhoeven and cinematographer Jost Vacano focus on the dead officer's face, a waxy, stiff mask, as a way of locking in our minds what this man looked like; then, the next several weeks or months are synopsised in a series of cryptic POV shots of Murphy's flickering consciousness during the installation of his organs into RoboCop, culminating in a long tracking shot from inside his eyes of the first day he's officially turned on. Then and only then does the film switch to a third-person perspective, revealing almost every inch of RoboCop other than his face. By the time we finally see what Murphy has become, Verhoeven has built so much mystery and anticipation up that it's giddily unbearable.

When the film cycles into its numerous action scenes, it's no less impeccably choreographed: with it being clear that no serious harm will come to RoboCop, the film rests for tension less on what is going to happen than how it will happen, and it becomes an exercise less in watching a cyborg fight bad guys than a rather surprisingly complex and sophisticated character study of how clever a cop Murphy must have been in order to leave the robot housing his brain with this much insight into fighting crime. After all, the film kills off Murphy almost immediately after we meet him, giving him just enough human scenes to make us feel sorry for the vaguely-defined offscreen child and wife he leaves behind, but certainly not enough to understand anything about him. The film's game, then, is to use RoboCop's actions to imply, slantwise, Murphy's dormant personality, and this is done to remarkable effect; it's a huge tribute to the screenwriters, Weller, and Verhoeven that such a simple one-note character (whose face above the lips is invisible for most of the film!) can be rendered with such shading.

But back to the action scenes. The film is rousing and exciting, thanks to the fast-paced editing by the underappreciated Frank J. Urioste (who, right after his work here, hopped over to the even-better Die Hard, receiving richly deserved Oscar nominations for both), whose fleet incorporation of the film's excessive violence emphasises the impact but not the brutality; and thanks even more to Basil Poledouris, whose work here comes close to rivaling his all-time great music for Conan the Barbarian: I frequently find his work loud and poundy to no point, but his main motif for the title character is one of the great action movie music cues of the 1980s, urgent and earnest and grand, with at least one orchestration that playfully works in little anvil clangs to emphasis the the hero's metallic nature.

It is possible to use this against the film: is it not palpably the case that Verhoeven and the screenwriters are calling out a love of ultraviolence? Yet is it not also palpably the case that RoboCop is awash in ultraviolence itself? Yes to both, but it's not inherently the case that to call something out is to morally condemn it, and among the reasons Verhoeven's American films work so well is that almost without exception they come at their satiric intent from a place of enthusiasm for the subject being mocked. He's not playing the moral scold, that is, but the slightly abashed sex and violence connoisseur who knows enough not to pretend like there's absolutely no visceral appeal in the things he's satirising. And that allows him to indulge in the absurd extremes of violence that virtually always ends up shading into comedy (the exception: Murphy's death, which particularly in the director's cut seems a little too slavering and grim; given that Murphy is more or less explicitly a Christ analogue, one supposes that Verhoeven has a similar relationship to the violence meted out during the Passion as Mel Gibson does), rendering all of that death as ridiculous and stupid - the endless geysers of blood erupting from that poor OCP board member leaps to mind. It helps to remember that RoboCop isn't an anti-violence film per se; rather, it's opposed to the indiscriminate use of violence as a problem solver, a great American tradition then as now. In presenting it in the most over-the-top way - much like the news and the utterly trashy sex comedy that seem to be the only programming on TV are over-the-top exaggerations - the film suggests that it finds the whole idea of glorified violence to be too silly to take seriously, attacking its target through ridicule rather than anger.

And if that makes for a fun, funny, frequently exhilarating action movie to serve as the satire's delivery system, so much the better for all of us. Everything about the film works: the sound design (love the animalistic grunts of the ED-209), the clean and efficient screenplay that never over-explains what it can merely imply in a gesture, the great performances by all three of the villains (Smith particularly, a disconcertingly off-model gangster with his pinched rodent features and general air of being a pissy accountant) and, I'd say, by Weller himself, bringing significant complexity to a static character. The thoughtful, insightful world building is just as involving as the high-energy action, and it's genuinely witty in both its commentary and its genre-required zingers; basically, it is a perfect version of the thing it sets out to be, one of the most intellectual and propulsive of all '80s action films.

Reviews in this series
RoboCop (Verhoeven, 1987)
RoboCop 2 (Kershner, 1990)
RoboCop 3 (Dekker, 1993)