|"Come quietly or there will be... trouble."|
The first time I ever watched Paul Verhoeven's muscular vision of a dystopian future, RoboCop, was on VHS, recorded off the telly. It was a, somewhat random, double-feature with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and those two films were my introduction to cinematic violence. While I was perhaps too young for RoboCop (the memory of my exact age has become dimmed with increasing age) I thrilled to it. The violence, while not disturbing me as much as the heart extraction in Temple of Doom, was certainly extreme. And I was far too young and immature to fully grasp the larger themes that Verhoeven was interested in. But something of them trickled through; something of the twisted humour, the rather anti-authoritarian and anti-corporate stance.
In the years since I have become a fan of Paul Verhoeven. The man has had his fair share of Hollywood stinkers - Hollow Man, Showgirls - but his standout films - Total Recall, Starship Troopers, Black Book - have been works of demented, uncompromising genius. 1987's RoboCop was the director's first major Hollywood work and is typical of his style and carries many of his cinematic quirks and obsessions; a propensity for gruesome violence, distrustful of corporate/government institutions and greed, science-fiction and a frank openness to sex and sexuality. Don't forget, this is a man who grew up in the Netherlands during the time of Nazi occupation and was surrounded by destruction and death for some of his most formative years.
But he melds, combines, synthesis these ideas and themes with a thrilling cinematic action-film. It has been stated that Verhoeven saw the character of RoboCop as a Christ-like figure; the shotgun blasts to officer Murphy's hands and arms representing the stigmata, while the shot to the head represents the Crown of Thorns. Murphy is then, of course, reborn. I love that a Verhoeven vision of Christ is a cyborg law enforcer carrying a massive Beretta in his leg. Or, more specifically, Verhoeven's vision of an American Christ - when words and turning the other cheek fails... BLAM! BLAM! BOOM!
Let's not forget that RoboCop is not solely a creation of Paul Verhoeven. In point of fact he initially rejected the script by Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner. Neither of them have written anything particularly decent since (Neumeier also wrote Verhoeven's hilarious and splattery Starship Troopers) but with RoboCop they managed to capture something of the zeitgeist.
In fact, I very much doubt if a film like RoboCop as it currently exists would be able to be made in today's Hollywood system. Past the surface details of the explosions and production design, RoboCop is a film brimming with ideas, subtext and thematic explorations. It's the kind of intelligent, yet still thrilling popcorn-entertainment, science-fiction that Hollywood doesn't really do anymore. That ground seems to be covered by lower budget films like Primer, District 9 and Monsters. 2010's Inception probably came the closest to a big-budget but still intelligent science-fiction film in recent years. But compare Nolan's dry, well-constructed intelligence and entertainment to Verhoeven's gory, funny, pop-infused, slyly subversive ride. To me, there's no contest. I know which film I'd prefer to watch over and over again.
From RoboCop, there have been any number of other works spinning out from the original film; a couple of sequels, a TV series, cartoons, video-games and comic-books. He's faced off against Aliens, the Terminator and probably Rocky Balbooa. I'm quite happy to say I've not seen, read or played any of these. RoboCop remains, to me, a singular experience. Even if RoboCop 3 promised a RoboCop with a jetpack. The design of RoboCop, for all the arguments and near-fisticuffs that went into it, is iconic. The man behind the creation of that suit, the Rick Baker trained Rob Bottin, and Verhoeven by all reports clashed constantly, at one point almost coming to blows. Of course, none of that really matters; the proof of their work is up there on screen: RoboCop. A character so iconic, there was a movement to erect a statue to him in Detroit and who, bestride a unicorn with a very strong back, became a popular internet meme in 2008.
There is, as there always is, talk of a remake floating around. It's talk that has been in the ether for a number of years now. At one point it looked increasingly likely that Darren Arronofsky was going to be the one to bring it on home. And he would have been one of the few directors I actually would have trusted to do something interesting with the material. Like him or not, Aronofsky always has something to say in his films. However, he walked and it seemed as if RoboCop 2.0 would either fall by the wayside or be picked up by some hacky hack with nothing interesting to say like McG, Scott Derrickson or Len Wiseman. Instead, the current man attached is Brazilian director Jose Padilha. After seeing his Elite Squad II: The Enemy Within I'm a little happier about the remake. Elite Squad II was a solidly entertaining genre film, with a lot to say and an effective way of saying it. Could RoboCop be Padilha's RoboCop? Padilha has stated his film will explore more of what it means to be a man turned into a machine; Padilha is aiming for something more philosophical and less political it seems.
Approaching RoboCop as an overtly political film and statement is an interesting exercise and the comparisons to Neumeier and Verhoeven's Starship Troopers are readily apparent. Both men are on the political left; both liberals, yet both of these films can be seen as fascist and right-leaning. I instead see them as poking fun at these sorts of ideas, approaching them in a tongue-and-cheek manner. It's a delicate balancing act and Neumeier and Verhoeven just manage it. The use of fake news broadcasts, commercials (the 6000 SUX and Nuke 'Em boardgame) serve to set-up the wider world in amongst some truly absurd humour. Essentially, they're setting up an incorporated, fascist world and undercutting it at the same time.
But let's not forget: RoboCop is fun. A hell of a lot of fun in fact. When I watch it nowadays, I'm more aware of the ideas and themes going on in the film - RoboCop as a Christ-like figure or as a man struggling to regain his humanity; the send up of the "greed is good" mentality; the film even serves as a template for the modern superhero origin story. But there's a part of me that will always be that boy thrilling to the imperfect, B-movie, iconic, violent, funny, low-brow and deliriously glorious RoboCop. I hope to experience it on the big screen one day.
Part man. Part machine. All cop. Yer damn right.
RoboKid - the cutest little cyborg-crimefighter around. With a signed photo from RoboCop himself, Peter Weller.
Total Recall - Verhoeven's adaptation of the Philip K. Dick short-story We Can Remeber it For You Wholesale starring Arnie, Sharon Stone and a chick with three tits. Another insane & pulpy sci-fi ride with some larger questions lurking just below the surface. "Get your ass to Mars!"
Starship Troopers - the first Verhoeven film I saw in a cinema and one that is hilarious, explosive and fantastically bone-headed at times. Casper van Dien and Denise Richards are no great thespians but Neil Patrick Harris and Michael Ironside are a lot fun. "D'you wanna live forever?!"
Black Book - Verhoeven's first film back in his native Netherlands since his move to Hollywood. An epic, moving and just downright stunning film about one Jewish woman's attempts to survive during the Nazi occupation.
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension - the Peter Weller starring cult classic that really is quite mad. Description doesn't really quite do it justice. "I've been ionized, but I'm okay now."
Elite Squad and Elite Squad II: The Enemy Within - RoboCop remake director Jose Padilha's first two feature films; excellent action films with a political message of their own.