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Robocop (June 1/04)

Robocop is one of those movies that becomes something entirely different upon subsequent viewings. The first time around, it's virtually impossible not to be distracted by the remarkably graphic violence - compounded by director Paul Verhoeven's unflinching style. But once you get past the over-the-top elements within the film (of which there are many), there lies a surprisingly smart and funny satire that just gets sharper as the years go by.

In an unspecified future, the police force in Detroit (now called Old Detroit) has been sold to a big corporation with little interest in saving lives. High-ranking weasel Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer) spearheads an initiative to put a cyborg police officer on the streets - and receives a prime candidate in the guise of slain cop Alex Murphy (Peter Weller). Robocop is born shortly after and though his memory was thought to have been wiped, traces of Murphy's humanity begin to seep through.

Though Robocop isn't quite Verhoeven's crowning achievement - that would be Total Recall - there's no denying that the film's become something of a science fiction landmark. Filled with intriguing concepts and prophetic ideas (the first appearance of a DVD, perhaps?), the film presents a future that's entirely plausible. Screenwriters Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner effectively establish this world as a believable one; this certainly isn't the sort of ideal utopian society as seen in other sci-fi works (ie Star Trek).

The film marked Verhoeven's Hollywood debut, and it's hard not to be impressed by his audacious sense of style. He's never been known for his restraint, something that's particularly true here (and even more so in the unrated director's cut). He doesn't direct so much as he attacks, exposing audiences to things they never thought they'd see (ie Murphy's exploding hand). But unlike Robocop's first sequel, there's nothing vicious about the violence; Verhoeven diffuses potentially uncomfortable moments with his trademarked over-the-top sensibility, forcing the viewer to laugh rather than cringe. And even when comedy isn't applicable - such as during the Murphy's execution - Verhoeven use of brutal imagery allows the audience to really feel for the characters (using the same example, compassion for Murphy and hatred towards his killers).

Of course, it's impossible to talk about Robocop without discussing Weller's amazing performance. Weller is essentially playing two characters here - Alex Murphy and Robo himself - and the actor does a fantastic job of keeping them separate, while leaving enough of Murphy in Robocop to allow some of his humanity to occasionally seep through. It's really a testament to Weller's skill and commitment that we never question the presence of Robocop, despite the flashy costume and silly one-liners.

And then there are the various villains, constantly stealing the spotlight from Robo and with good reason. The core trio of baddies - Ferrer's Bob Morton, Ronny Cox's Dick Jones, and Kurtwood Smith's Clarence Boddicker - are so fascinating and appropriately cast that it'd be easy to envision an entire movie built around each of them. The remarkable thing is that none of these actors were previously known for playing evil characters prior to Robocop. Verhoeven saw something in these performers indicating their proclivity towards portraying such vile figures.

The special effects work - particularly Phil Tippett's stop-motion animation and Rob Bottin's design of the Robocop suit - is flawless, contributing to the overall world as envisioned by Verhoeven. Though the film's two sequels are entirely superfluous, Robocop remains a science-fiction classic.

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About the DVD: MGM Home Entertainment presents Robocop in its unrated form, previously only available in the Criterion laserdisc and DVD. If you're a fan of the film and have never seen this version, you certainly owe it to yourself to check it out (if only for the extended massacre of that hapless OCP drone at the hands of ED-209). As if that wasn't enough, the movie is accompanied by a wealth of fascinating supplemental features - led by a newly-recorded commentary track with Verhoeven, Neumeier, and producer Jon Davison. Verhoeven expectedly dominates this track, revealing a mixture of new and old information. A 36-minute documentary on the film is also included, which contains a good amount of behind-the-scenes footage (and the revelation that Michael Ironside was the first choice for Robo!) Four deleted scenes (nothing earth-shattering, unfortunately), two eight-minute featurettes, storyboard commentary with Tippett, a photo gallery, and two trailers and a TV spot round out the disc's bonus features. This version of Robocop is only available in a three-pack containing the film's two sequels, though the package is very reasonably priced (it costs less than the Criterion DVD).
© David Nusair