Thursday, 6 March 2014

6 Reasons To Re-Watch The Original RoboCop Before Watching The Reboot

For the record, I have yet to see the brand-new remake of the 1987 action classic RoboCop. Moreover, until a few days ago, I felt no particular need to go out and see it. These days the price of movie tickets coupled with the existence of Netflix means I hardly ever go out to see movies, especially Hollywood blockbusters. But after having re-watched the original RoboCop for the first time since I was a kid, I'm now quite curious to see it. Although in all honesty I'm probably going to wait until it comes out on Netflix. I'm cheap that way.

I was around 10 years old when I first saw the original film, which means a) I was definitely too young to be legally watching it without a parent or guardian (sorry mom, sorry dad); and b) a lot of its content went completely over my head at the time. Seeing it now made me think there's more to movie age restrictions than simply sex and violence, of which there was none of the former but a great deal of the latter. The graphic shoot-em-up scenes in the movie certainly made a big impression on my young mind, but the subtler aspect of the film, like its socio-economic critique and liberal use of Biblical symbolism, were beyond what I was able to process at the time. If anything, the "inappropriate content" was the stuff I wasn't intellectually ready to grapple with.

The original RoboCop was, in many ways, ahead of its time. While critical reception of the film was on the whole positive in 1987, it received considerable flak for both the quality and quantity of gory on-screen violence as well as its liberal use of profanity. While still most definitely stomach-churning at points, the film's violence pales in comparison to much that was to come within a decade thanks to movies like Reservoir Dogs and Natural Born Killers, which in turn pale in comparison to the likes of the Saw and Hostel franchises - which make the original RoboCop look like My Dinner With Andre by comparison. As for the profanity, it certainly shocked my 10-year-old sensibilities at the time but in an era when F-bombs are a dime a dozen on primetime TV, there's no shock value there.

That said, I definitely wasn't ready to appreciate RoboCop at age 10, and as a result dismissed it for the next 20-plus years as simply one of the many gratuitous big-biceps shoot-em-up extravaganzas that defined much of 1980s Hollywood. It wasn't until this Monday that I rediscovered the film and completely changed my mind about it. Granted, I still hate the way the film ends, with the villainous Omni Consumer Products CEO Dick Jones (brilliantly played by Ronnie Cox) being blown out of a glass window atop the company's skyscraper, in one of the worst cliche movie deaths ever. That said, it's still an excellent film, and one that definitely needs to be re-watched before going anywhere near the re-boot. Here's why.

1) Peter Weller's performance

One of the most interesting aspects of the original RoboCop film is director Paul Verhoeven's very counterintuitive casting choices. For the titular role, Verhoeven initially considered A-list action stars Arnold Schwarzenegger and fellow Dutchman Rutger Hauer for the role, but ultimately settled on the smaller and highly cerebral Peter Weller, a guy whose other most memorable roles have been Dr. Buckaroo Banzai in the cult sci-fi classic The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension and William S. Burroughs in David Cronenberg's twisted 1991 rendering of The Naked Lunch.

The decision was made in large part because the diminutive Weller had an easier time moving in the RoboCop suit than the aforementioned big guys, but it ended up being a brilliant move. Weller's portrayal of both the mild-mannered Detroit cop Alex Murphy and the brooding titular cyborg gives the film an intense humanity that Arnie would have been hard-pressed to deliver. Hauer, on the other hand, would have been an interesting choice given his own track record for playing emotionally disturbed androids. But Weller's acting combined with his delicate features makes the original RoboCop really stand out in the predominantly brawny and brainless domain that is '80s action heroes.

2) Two iconic '80s movie villains for the price of one

If there's one thing 1980s action movies did right, it was creating awesome over-the-top bad guys. While the action heroes of this era tended to be bland and one-dimensional, Hollywood directors made up for it by delivering the likes of Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) in Die Hard, The Kurgan (Clancy Brown) in The Highlander, Koji Sato (Yusaku Masuda) in Black Rain, Johnny Lawrence (Billy Zabka) in The Karate Kid and, of course, Jack Nicholson as the Joker in the 1989 Batman. The 1987 RoboCop goes one step further by delivering two of the decade's most memorable bad dudes in a single film.

As with the main character, Verhoeven made a point of making counterintuitive casting choices for the film's two antagonists, CEO Dick Jones and 'Old Detroit' crime lord Clarence Boddicker. For Jones he went with Ronny Cox, an actor and singer-songwriter best known for playing genteel fatherly figures in series like Apple's Way and St. Elsewhere. In a similar vein, Verhoeven cast Kurtwood Smith, an actor best known for playing uptight squares in That Seventies Show and movies like Dead Poets Society as probably the only ever movie supervillain named 'Clarence'. Both men clearly embraced their anti-typecasting roles and threw themselves into their respective evil characters will full aplomb.

(As an interesting side note, Clarence Boddicker's trademark rimless glasses were a key element in Kurtwood Smith landing the role, as Verhoeven thought they made him resemble Nazi SS commander Heinrich Himmler.)

3) A great female action hero

In her seminal critique of post-second-wave culture Backlash, feminist author Susan Faludi dismisses RoboCop as simply one of "an endless stream of war and action movies" in which "women are reduced to mute and incidental characters or banished altogether." While I have the deepest respect for Faludi and Backlash and I have to agree with her overall characterization of 1980s action movies, I think she is dead wrong about this one. Aside from the titular character, the strongest character in the movie is without doubt Murphy's stoic and determined partner, Officer Anne Lewis (played by Nancy Allen) - one of Hollywood's toughest and most memorable female cops.

While her character is clearly secondary to Murphy/RoboCop, Officer Lewis is the type of female character you still rarely see in Hollywood films - a shrewd, independent, non-objectified woman in a typically male role. Most strikingly, the relationship between Lewis and her ill-fated partner is very much in the classic buddy-cop mode and is refreshingly un-sexualized. (RoboCop is a lot of things, but it's about the least 'sexy' film I can think of.) Depressingly, I fear Hollywood has gone downhill in this category since the 1980s. In the 2014 reboot, Officer Lewis is gone, replaced by Officer Jack Lewis (played by Michael K. Williams), and the only female character in sight is Murphy's wife, played by Abbie Cornish. So much for that.

4) Symbolism galore

An interesting (and little-known) fact about Paul Verhoeven - a man best known for sci-fi blockbusters RoboCop, Total Recall and Starship Troopers and then-scandalous 1992 suspense thriller Basic Instinct - is that he is also a dedicated Biblical scholar and a onetime member of now defunct Jesus Seminar, an scholarly association dedicated to shedding light on the historical Jesus of Nazareth. Of all his output, RoboCop is without doubt the most overtly 'Christian' in theme. Indeed, Verhoeven asserts in the documentary Flesh and Steel: The Making of RoboCop that he intended the main character to be a 'Christ figure'. Christian symbolism abounds throughout the film, from Officer Murphy torturous death at the hands of a mocking rabble to RoboCop walking ankle-deep in water during the climactic showdown at the abandoned steel mill.

Biblical allegories aside, the most obvious literary parallel is, of course, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Indeed, there is a certain Boris Karloff-type quality to Peter Weller's performance in this film, while the amoral and singularly driven Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer), RoboCop's creator, is clearly a modern-day stand-in for Dr. Frankenstein. In this sense, RoboCop fits more within the classic horror cannon than within the annals of science fiction, as does Verhoeven's later ultra-violent riff on the Book of Revelations, Starship Troopers. Interesting stuff at the very least.

5) An eerie caricature of Reagan-era America

While socioeconomic and cultural caricature are not hard to find in the 1980s Hollywood action movie cannon, in many if not most cases directors felt the need to critique American culture within a 'foreign' context. In Die Hard, the protagonists are American but the villain is, of course, German and the corporate context in question belongs to the then Leviathan presence of Bubble Economy-era Japan, a context that reappears in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (ostensibly LA in 2019 but clearly 1980s-vintage Tokyo with flying cars) and Black Rain. Meanwhile, the Rambo saga starts on the terra firma of the United States but then heads off to the safe refuge of Commie-ruled Vietnam.

RoboCop, by contrast, focuses unflinchingly on a decaying (and increasingly crime-ridden) post-industrial US, centred, appropriately enough, on the city most frequently held up as a poster child by both the left and the right for everything wrong about the country. While the exact epoch of the movie is left intentionally ambiguous (set at "some point" in the near future), the cultural setting, from the over-the-top corporate greed to the cowboyish gangsters, is unquestionably the 1980s America of Gordon Gekko and company - complete with a severe case of the military industrial complex. In that sense RoboCop can be seen in a similar light to Heart of Darkness, where, like with Verhoeven's film, it took a foreigner (the Polish-born Joseph Conrad) to shine a light into the skeleton closet of British/Belgian colonialism.

6) Future echoes

In an ironic development, the character of RoboCop has become an iconic figure in the beleaguered city of Detroit where the film was set. In 2011, following then Detroit mayor Dave Bing's announcement of the building of a 'New Detroit', the mayor was asked (as a joke) if he planned to erect a statue of the iconic movie cyborg, and his rejection of such plans led to an Internet campaign aimed at raising money for a RoboCop statue. Today it looks increasingly likely that the statue will indeed happen.

In a very real sense, the nightmarish, dystopian Detroit dreamed up by Verhoeven did become reality. Between 2000 and 2010 the city lost 25 percent of its population, dropping to just over 700,000 (down from a peak population of 1.8 million in 1950), and in July of last year the city filed for bankruptcy in the largest municipal bankruptcy case in US history. This ongoing decline has resulted in notorious urban blight, with the abandoned industrial structures of RoboCop eerily reminiscent of the city of today, while the city continues to grapple with stubbornly high rates of violent crime.

In spite of its deeply entrenched problems, Detroit remains a city with intense civic pride, and since the city's bankruptcy filing in mid-2013 there's been an upsurge in social and economic activism in the city aimed at bringing the city back to health, by groups such as Revival in Detroit and World Hope. In that sense, the character of RoboCop himself can be seen as an allegory for Detroit itself - agonizingly shot to death but still managing to cling onto life and re-emerging stronger than ever. At least that's the hope of Motor City's stubbornly proud residents. Perhaps a RoboCop statue isn't that far-fetched an idea after all.

So, in sum, before you go pay however much tickets for the 2014 Jose Padilha reboot of RoboCop, I strongly suggest sitting down to watch the old one. If for no other reason, by what I've read of the reviews of the new film, the old one is definitely better. But I should really go see the new one before I say that.

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