1987 was a roller coaster year. Ronald Reagan, by then coming to the end of his remarkable presidency, told Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall. Michael Jackson released Bad, because we still didn’t realise he was Dangerous and Off The Wall. They started building a tunnel between England and France. The stock market crashed.
It was a golden year for movies. Predator, Lethal Weapon, Planes, Trains & Automobiles, Full Metal Jacket, Raising Arizona, The Running Man, The Princess Bride, and many other classic films came out that year. The mathematics fans among you might want to count how many of these titles are remakes, sequels, or remakes of sequels, or soft reboots, or prequels, or the 437th movie in an extended cinematic universe about men in lycra punching each other for the edification of soyguzzling manbaby cumbeards.
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But the greatest of these was a strange and wonderful movie called RoboCop. RoboCop, for those of you who are Millennials or gay, practically is the 1980’s in celluloid form. It’s a glorious, foul-mouthed, ultraviolent, cinematic thrill ride that both satirises and celebrates that legendary decade of outrageous American excess.
It’s also a deceptively smart film. On the surface, it’s a simple (but satisfying) revenge tale, not unlike 1974’s Death Wish and other pictures in that vein. It’s mainly the pitch-black humor that makes it smart: the wry, sly digs at the grinning inanity of the media, hilariously sleazy yuppie executives jostling at the trough of corrupt public-private partnerships, and the ludicrously extreme violence that permeates the story.
“Only” 34 people are killed on-screen in RoboCop, but rarely has a mainstream movie depicted such graphic gore with such reckless adolescent glee. Among other things, we see a policeman’s hand being blown off with a shotgun, a rapist being shot in the dick, a gangster half-melted by toxic waste and then turned into chunky salsa by a speeding car, a crook thrown through a plate glass window while being read his Miranda rights (with very un-action-movie-like quantities of blood ensuing), and poor Mr Kinney suffering possibly the worst day at the office, ever.
There’s more violence and toxic masculinity in RoboCop than the equivalent of twelve Mel Gibsons. This being a futuristic version of the 80’s, when men were real men, even the filofax-fondling corporate executives are sharp-suited, coke-hoovering, stone cold killers – practically a different species from the soft, doughy, passive-aggressive autists of today’s internet soyligarchy.
RoboCop is so manly that even the VHS edition smells of 18 year old single malt and is covered in stubble. And if you left it too close to your wife’s jazzercise workout tapes, they’d end up pregnant with a copy of Starship Troopers.
Somehow, in spite of all this, the film has a heart, too.
Your common-or-garden 80’s actioner was all about a musclebound lunk of a protagonist gunning down hordes of bad guys while dropping deadpan one-liners as if he were Rodney Dangerfield on a killing spree. Sometimes he might have the benefit of a family man backstory (Commando, Die Hard), but usually only enough to serve as motivation to gun down more bad guys.
RoboCop, nee Alex Murphy, is different. He’s an average blue-collar cop, a husband and father-of-one who is gruesomely murdered in the line of duty and resurrected as a cyborg owned by the OCP corporation. Most of his body has been replaced with titanium and chrome, his face is like rubber flesh stretched across a steel frame, and all his memories as a human being have been erased – replaced with programming meant to ensure he behaves like an obedient product rather than a man.
This is a horrifying fate, a sort of mad scientist’s technological purgatory bordering hell, and the movie doesn’t shirk from the post-human consequences of its own high concept. An early scene shows the doctors operating on Murphy triumphantly announcing that they’ve managed to save his arm – only to be told to throw it away, because OCP has no use for a cyborg with a limb made of flesh and bone. Robo can only eat a sort of gloopy paste as a result of his primitive digestive system, further alienating him from even the simplest human pleasures.
And then the flashbacks begin. In grainy, lo-def video our hero starts to remember what has been stolen from him. His wife’s touch. His child’s smile. He is haunted by his past. In one scene we see him stomping around his old home, which is now empty and forlorn. Where once he had a family that loved him, only digital ghosts remain. He can never go back.
All that’s left for the half-man once known as Alex Murphy is to fight for what’s left of his humanity – and revenge.
For a film that also includes one of the bad guys breaking his foot while trying to kick RoboCop in his shiny metal junk, that’s a startling amount of pathos.
Speaking of bad guys, no action movie can succeed without decent adversaries. Predator had Predator. The Terminator had… The Terminator. Ghostbusters (2016) had Harambe. RoboCop gives us an ensemble cast of eminently hateable villains, and they’re all great: the icy cold boardroom/bathroom brawler Dick Jones; the blood-spitting, scene-chewingly evil gang leader Clarence Boddicker; and some of the most unforgettable stop-motion animation in film history with the snarling killbot ED-209.
Each one of them is unique and memorably menacing, completely unlike the largely interchangeable cast of CGI-ed or lycra-ed baddies who serve as antagonists in whichever PG-13 Marvel movie came out this week.
It’s no wonder RoboCop is so fondly remembered. It’s a time capsule of completely unsentimental 1980’s nostalgia, but it’s also a timeless tale of man versus machine – and not just on a superficial level. While the clunking monstrocity ED-209 provides the most visually striking external threat to the resurrected Murphy, it’s ultimately his own robotic programming that he must overcome in order to be a man again.
Plus, RoboCop reminds us that sometimes, the only thing that can stop evil is a good man with a gun.
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