The time is the near future and society is heading to the dogs; in America the situation in Detroit is growing more desperate by the day, with the police force threatening to go on strike. What a point for Officer Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) to join the force in the roughest part of the city, but he's ready and willing to bring justice to the streets. His new partner is Officer Ann Lewis (Nancy Allen), and with the briefest of introductions they are out on patrol, little knowing that today will be fateful for both of them. Meanwhile, in the offices of O.C.P., the biggest corporation around, a board meeting has been called as the company's number two, Richard Jones (Ronny Cox) has a new weapon in the fight against crime to introduce. But things don't go according to plan...
There may have been a plethora of action movies in the nineteen-eighties, but RoboCop had a special advantage over many of them: it was probably the smartest of the lot. Working from a terrific script by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner, which owed something to the Judge Dredd comic strip in its mixture of satire and cynicism, director Paul Verhoeven found an ideal outlet for his European sensibilities which could just as easily be seen as embracing the excesses of the United States as it could be condemning them. Like the vogue for superheroes that emerged in the late nineties, RoboCop operates as an origin story for its title character, explaining how he received his superpowers.
First, of course, Murphy must be destroyed before he can rise again Christ-like to vanquish the baddies. As the new O.C.P. product is unveiled as ED-209, a monstrous mechanical beast toting twin cannons that regrettably wipes out a member of the staff during a demonstration (an ideal example of the film's pitch black sense of humour), the time is right for up and coming executive Morton (Miguel Ferrer on superior asshole form) to propose his solution to the city's problems. And that solution is the RoboCop, never officially referred to as such, a cyborg built from the remnants of a dying policeman. However, where can they find one?
As luck would have it, though not for the man in question, Murphy has tracked the city's biggest crimelord Clarence (Kurtwood Smith in a career making turn) to his lair in an abandoned industrial works. Alas, he and his associates gain the upper hand and riddle Murphy with bullets while Lewis (Allen adds much needed humanity) can only stand and watch helplessly; his body is then retrieved and almost entirely replaced with a robot frame, and soon he is anonymously patrolling for evildoers as O.C.P. have wiped his memory. But, and this is one of the themes of the film, one common to science fiction, his humanity cannot be held in check by his machine casing, and he begins to remember his past life as a family man - and a murder victim.
The business in the corporation illustrates the eighties obsession with climbing the corporate ladder, and rivals, even betters, the shenanigans seen in Oliver Stone's Wall Street the same year. Jones is not happy about being usurped and makes it his mission to see to it that the ED-209 project does not go down without a fight - especially as it turns out he and Clarence are in cahoots. So the scene is set for a clash between RoboCop and the company that created him, in a Frankenstein's Monster twist. The mechanical man is used sparingly, and Weller does well in a somewhat thankless role where only his mouth can be seen for much of the time, but we are never under the impression that Murphy had much personality before his transformation. Nevertheless, the jabs at the way the world was going, with authorities' fight violence with violence creed and big business getting its fingers into every pie at the expense of troublesome ethics, are executed with steely accuracy, while at heart the film recoils in disgust. Music by Basil Poledouris.
Verhoeven's sharp sense of humour tempers his over-the-top style, but he frequently sails too close to being ridiculous for many to take him seriously. The war drama Black Book, filmed in his native Holland, raised his standing once more, and his black comedy thriller Elle won great acclaim for star Isabelle Huppert.