This is one of those movies I find I don't have all that much to say about, only because so many people have seen it and written about it that I don't feel like I have that much new to offer. But fuck it, not having anything to say doesn't stop most writers, why should it stop me? Onward!
We open with a news broadcast, which serves as an excellent expository device about the near-future world our movie takes place in. Basically crime is out of control in New Detroit, which is about to be razed to make way for Delta City, a giant new development. We then take a little break for a commercial, this time for artificial hearts. We find out that in this world, hospitals and police have been privatized. We meet our hero, Peter Weller as Murphy, who is just transferring in from a "cushy" police district to downtown Detroit, which is supposed to be much nastier. He is introduced to his new partner, Lewis, played by Nancy Allen [!]. And you know I loves me some Nancy Allen. Murphy practices twirling his gun in order to impress his son, who thinks it's cool that this super cop on TV can do that.
Meanwhile, at OCP headquarters—that's a security firm that is controlling pretty much everything—Ronny Cox's Dick Jones is introducing his huge new robot security system, this massive thing with two gun-turret arms, a rival to Miguel Ferrer as Bob's own robot security system. They ask for a volunteer to hold a gun to demonstrate the new system. The machine tells him to drop the gun, which he does, then the machine tells him to drop the gun. Everyone freaks out, then the machine pumps him full of round after round of bullets. This is a great, scary scene, and it's too bad that it has been cut for all versions but the director's cut. When I first saw this movie, back in the 80s, the machine just keeps pumping the guy full of bullets until he's a bloody mass, and it's the rare case when excessive violence is used wisely, to make a point, and also to edge the tone into horrifically dark comedy that shocks the viewer and takes the audience completely aback. As it stands in the R-rated version, it's okay, it just doesn't have the same impact. Anyway. Bob chooses this moment to make his play for his own system, which will turn into Robocop. The just need a "volunteer…" Bwahh-ha-ha!
Okay, so it's time to kill Murphy. He and Lewis get called to some heist, and end up in this industrial setting, where Murphy is set upon by all the thugs, one of whom is Laura Palmer's Dad [Bob made him do it!] and their leader, Boddicker, who blows Murphy's hand off with a shotgun [another shocking moment from the original that has been severely truncated here]. Then the rest of the thugs set upon him and blow him to smithereens.
We now start seeing video images that we understand to be Murphy's new robot consciousness coming online. He is introduced to the police department, including Lewis, who starts having suspicions when he twirls his gun before replacing it in its holster. We now have a montage of Robocop out on the beat, giving crime a bitch-slap. At one point he saves a woman from being raped, and I liked the little touch that he cannot respond at all to her gratitude, but only says "Madam, you have experienced an emotional trauma. I will alert a rape crisis center." We then have a little more exposition news segment, saying that thanks to Robocop, all crime in Detroit should be eliminated in 40 days. In here also is a funny parody of the famous Battleship game commercial, showing a happy family sitting around playing nuclear war, complete with holographic nuclear explosion. If you like these little interludes, be sure to check out Verhoven's Starship Troopers, which has 'em in spades. God, if only Showgirls had them—HOW awesome would that be? I love really broad, snide satire.
Then there's a somewhat homoerotic scene in which Bob and Dick threaten each other in a restroom over their rival robo-police methods. Now the straight reader who does not peruse film theory magazines might wonder "what makes it so homoerotic?" Well, not only does it take place in a public restroom, which, sadly, has become legendary in the public imagination as a place of homosexual erotic congress—hey, did someone mention Congress?—but it's a scene of male erotic huffing, not unlike baboons or elephant seals pounding their chests together to prove their manhood. So there ya go.
SPOILERS > > >
So one night, Robocop has a dream. He remembers his own death and some other events from his past life. Then he wakes, stands up, and makes to leave the station. Lewis catches him on the way out and says "Murphy, I know it's you." I really like the way, throughout, that Weller underplays these scenes. He just steps back, slightly dazed, then pulls himself together and continues on. He takes off in his police car, and you have to admire that the movie gets across, without hammering home the points, that he can do whatever he wants because there is nothing powerful enough to stop him, and the whole thing about best-laid plans, creation that runs out of control, man's hubris, etc. No one needs to have these points hammered home ever again, and the movie wisely just steps back and lets the events speak for themselves.
Now who should just happen to be holding up a gas station, but one of the thugs who originally killed Murphy. He recognizes him [not likely, but run with it], and once more Robocop is dazed as he has a few more memories. Robocop heads straight to the police files where he interfaces with the system, getting pics and files of the guys who killed him, then a picture of himself. God, if only we could go back and insert a scene of Robocop saying "I know who killed me!" Robocop goes back to his old house, which is now empty and on the market [you'd think someone would clean up the dried old flowers and half-burnt photographs] and has lots of memories of his wife and child. Apparently a scene in which he visits his own grave was storyboarded but never filmed.
Meanwhile, bad Bobby is snorting coke off a woman's tits when he gets a visit from Boddicker, who comes in and says "Bitches leave!" He pops in a videotape letting us know he is in the employ of restroom rival Jones, and then Boddicker kills him. But now Robocop is zeroing in on the real bad guys. He arrests Boddicker and goes after Jones, but finds that a secret fourth directive sends his system into shutdown if he tries to harm a senior executive of OCP. He fights it off, then fights the big bad robot from the beginning, is totally blown away by the police, and is rescued by Lewis. We then have a news report saying that a laser satellite that is part of the [then-discussed/viable/etc.] Star Wars Strategic Defense Initiative accidentally went off and incinerated Santa Barbara! Come on, that's hilarious. Meanwhile, Robocop is convalescing on the lam under the care of Lewis when he unscrews his helmet and sees his own face. Another great little detail that the movie doesn't go overboard with is his curt "Leave me alone," to Lewis as he's angry and upset.
It all leads to a showdown that I'll leave for you to discover, except to mention that one of the thugs gets slopped and instantly mutated by toxic waste, then is spattered like a water balloon when a car hits him. And this may have been the first movie in which I saw the old blood-rhythmically-spurting-from-the-neck trick that makes SUCH an impression. There's a clever last-minute twist about how Robocop gets around the directive not to harm an OCP officer, and in our final moment, a sergeant asks Robocop his name and he responds "Murphy."
< < < SPOILERS END
It's still really good! It probably gets higher marks for coming on like a big, explosive, OTT sci-fi thriller in the Schwarzenegger vein [in fact, Schwarzenegger was considered for the role, but was though to be too big to fit into the suit without looking like "the Michelin Man"], and slipping in unexpectedly thoughtful and moving material, and it also gets higher marks for playing that stuff on the low-key end, not hitting you over the head with it. Nevertheless, I started yearning for a remake that would be akin to Peter Jackson's King Kong, that is, one that would carefully expand and shape the emotional arc, and balance it more evenly against the shoot-em-up pyrotechnics. Anyway, you also have to give a lot of credit to Weller's perfect performance, specifically the way he stays in mecha-mode and lets the story handle the poignance for him. It's too bad his career didn't go quite the way it should have—not that he has anything to be ashamed of.
So there ya go! It's good! It's shocking! It's thrilling! It's funny! It's moving! It's everything you want in a sci-fi movie! Plus: Nancy Allen!
Yes, you should.