Robocop (4k Remastered Edition)
Released by: MGM
Released on: January 21st, 2014.
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Cast: Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Daniel O'Herlihy, Ronny Cox, Kurtwood Smith
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Once in a while a film comes along that somehow manages to be both a complete product of its era AND a brilliant predictor of the future. These are the films that we may have regarded as outlandish or over the top at the time of their initial release. Sometimes they are high profile films with strong mainstream artistic pedigrees like Sydney Lumet's NETWORK (1976). Sometimes they come in the form of scrappy exploitation films like Mark L. Lester's CLASS OF 1984. Occasionally they are films like DR. STRANGELOVE which elicited audience chuckles upon its initial release that turned to a dead horrified silence at the height of the "we could die at any moment" nuclear nightmare 1980s. But whether it was the prescient look at the future dominance of if-it-bleeds-it-leads sensationalist news of NETWORK or the foreshadowing of prisonesque lockdown schools studded with metal detectors of CLASS OF 1984 these films weren't necessarily designed for intended future shock. They were designed as either satire, or base but entertaining, exploitation fare. But what happens when the exaggeration inches into reality?
ROBOCOP is one of those films that saw the future.
ROBOCOP has a silly title. A title so goofy that when director Paul Verhoeven first saw the script he promptly tossed it in the circular file. But, much like what happened with Stephen King's first draft of his novel "Carrie" a good woman saved the day. Verhoeven's wife ended up taking a look and zeroed in on a key emotional scene in the film. Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner hadn't written a dumb kids movie about a robot cop or a brainless action flick. They had written a scathing indictment of corporate American greed, deregulation run wild and the militarization of law enforcement. And that's only part of the picture. This is also a film that has an emotional core thanks to the sympathetic and nuanced performance of Peter Weller. ROBOCOP is about loss - of loved ones and memories. It even has something to say about what makes us human.
Old Detroit sometime in the future has descended into a dystopian nightmare. OCP - a huge corporation run by ruthless corporate profiteers have reaped the benefits of deregulation run wild. They now control the police as a for-profit entity and seek to replace human officers with machines as much as possible. Outmanned and outgunned, the Old Detroit police force is being murdered at a brisk clip out in the field. OCP's real plan is to raze crime-riddled Old Detroit and put up Delta City - a glitzy new settlement. Before they can do that though they need to eradicate the criminal element in Old Detroit. Call it gentrification by fire.
Into this mess rides officer Alex Murphy (Peter Weller). He's just been reassigned from what we gather was a safer precinct into this ring of Hades. He's partnered up with Nancy Allen's officer Anne Lewis. Allen was a spectacularly lovely woman but here we see her first in full body armor and short hair beating a rambunctious suspect into submission. Right away we see Verhoeven is playing around with audience expectations. Weller, with his normal build, sensitive eyes and gentle demeanor is also a far cry from the typical onscreen cop of the era. Murphy is a devoted family man with a preteen son and beautiful wife. His relationship with officer Lewis is warm and cordial but devoid of sexual tension.
One of the many great strengths of ROBOCOP is its embarrassment of riches in the character actor department. While most films are lucky to have one great villain ROBOCOP has three. Ronny Cox was a familiar face from films like DELIVERANCE, TAPS and THE CAR as a kindly and throughly decent figure. Here he plays Dick Jones - a corporate Great White fending off Miguel Ferrer's up and coming piranha Bob Morton. Jones has his own little private army as well. Representing the top of the street level criminal food chain who handle his dirty work is Kurtwood Smith's Clarence Boddicker. Jones has a pet project and its name is ED 209 - a massive armed robot designed for "urban pacification" that resembles some hideous mating of the mounted arms of a helicopter gunship grafted onto a metal biped. Massively armed with huge twin machine guns ED 209 is deadly but lumbering. When the unit spectacularly and hilariously bloodily malfunctions at a board meeting demonstration, young buck Morton swoops in. He's been working on a rival program that utilizes a mix of flesh and steel - the Robocop program. In short, it involves using the brain of a deceased police officer as a motherboard for a mechanical policeman. Human sized and resembling in some ways a creation from Fritz Lang's METROPOLIS this unit is far more practical and useful than ED 209. Horrified at the incompetence of Jones, CEO "The Old Man" (Dan O'Herlihy) decides to give the Morton program a shot. And one of the film's great conflicts has been set up. Rival businessmen often like to talk about being metaphorical killers and reading "The Art Of War" but guys like Jones are willing to take it to the next level.
When Verhoeven was mapping out ROBOCOP he had some very specific ideas about how certain characters should look and behave. Boddicker was conceived as a figure from Verhoeven's childhood nightmares living under Nazi occupation in Holland. One of the great ironies of Boddicker is that the "Eichmann in glasses" meant to symbolize the banality of evil in Verhoeven's original conception becomes something entirely different in the performance. Smith delivers one of the most insanely charismatic bad guys in film history. First seen tossing a useless and wounded criminal compadre out of a moving van ("Can you fly Bobby?") Boddicker is a dangerous creation. He's funny and smart - and sadistic down to the bone.
When Murphy and Lewis run afoul of the Boddicker gang while on a routine patrol Murphy ends up being brutally murdered. The violence in this scene is almost unbearable. On the supplements on this stellar disc Verhoeven talks frankly about his conception of this scene as being influenced by the killing of Jesus. Many may find that deeply offensive. I find it brilliantly subversive. The element of sadistic humor present is also quite unsettling but this isn't an amoral geek show where you side with cool bad guys. Weller is so resolutely decent that it adds real emotional content to the scene.
The unrated cut present on this disc represents Verhoeven's true vision for the film. Cut to get an R rating for its theatrical run, ROBOCOP loses much of the satirical bite when trimmed. The blood and guts in this movie is there in such copious amounts for a reason. In some cases it adds an element of intentional humor. A man calling for a paramedic after someone has been hamburgered into a bloody pulp by industrial machine guns best suited for shooting tanks is not without comedic value. In other cases it adds emotional power. Watching a beloved character die in excruciating agony heightens our sympathetic response. Coupled with the satirical newscasts sprinkled throughout the film (which target everything from the American gusto for crap gas guzzling autos and mindlessly violent entertainment to military mishaps) it isn't too difficult to suss out what Verhoeven and screenwriters Neumeier and Miner are driving at. And these guys have other satiric zingers to shoot. When Boddicker sits down for a criminal powwow with cocaine kingpin Sal (Lee DeBroux) that goes horribly wrong and everybody ends up whipping out their gun we get a classic line. "Guns guns guns!" Boddicker ends up gleefully shouting. And with bad guys tooling around with actual rocket launchers provided by OCP the Wild West metaphor is fully in effect. It might be the NRA's ultimate wet dream. An arms race ending with everybody packed to the teeth.
The narrative drive is straightforward however. Murphy wants to bring to justice the people responsible for his murder. That those killers are a protected class aligned with the very organization that created him presents a serious problem. There is also the matter of some hidden code written into his operating system. We have a pretty good idea how this is going to end up. The journey is the joy.
While ROBOCOP has a truly stunning supporting cast in place the heart of the film is Weller. It is a meticulously plotted and choreographed piece of work but also infused with real humanity. Weller worked like a dog to get the distinctive gait and quick birdlike movements down and it shows. Early on he resembles a newborn foal just learning how to walk. Later he gets faster and more efficient but always maintains a tiny shred of the hesitant quality of a human. Later still when the helmet comes off he becomes a tragically wounded hero. This is where Weller gets to use his marvelously emotive eyes to full advantage. The scenes where Murphy has vivid recollections of his lost family achieve a poignance rarely reached in mainstream dramas let alone action films.
ROBOCOP is Paul Verhoeven's true masterpiece. While BASIC INSTINCT is good sleazy fun and STARSHIP TROOPERS a brilliant parody of gung-ho militarism this is the film where the Dutch director fires on all cylinders. ROBOCOP is a startlingly prescient view of avaricious corporatism and deregulation run wild as well as a blood and thunder action film with a humanistic streak. Once cleverly dubbed "fascism for liberals" it nevertheless remains a dramatic work open to many political interpretations. Much like Don Siegel's INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS or John Carpenter's THEY LIVE.
But whatever one's takeaway is in that respect ROBOCOP is a truly great film by any measure.
ROBOCOP was previously the victim of of a high definition tragedy. The original 2007 release was a poor presentation with weak detail and color palette. Interestingly, at the time of its initial release that Blu ray was defended in some quarters as being the best the film could look.
Flash forward 7 years to 2014 and this new 4K restoration. Now the beneficiary of improved mastering techniques and a better understanding in most quarters of the evils of DNR and various sharpening tools ROBOCOP gets a Blu ray redux. The verdict? A big thumbs up.
The optical effects are always going to look soft because that is their nature. The news segments are also always going to look soft because that is not only the way they were shot but also the way they were intended to look. But the rest of the image offers a significant improvement. Healthy organic grain is on display. Image detail is excellent. Fleshtones look appropriately fleshy. Color is excellent despite the fact that this is an often dank looking film. Blood has the right tint (an important matter in ROBOCOP!). This is a very strong presentation of an imperfectly filmed catalog title. ROBOCOP is a grainy film. Thank god this didn't get turned into a PREDATOR level fiasco with wax dummies on display.
The audio is a 5.1 remix in lossless DTS-HD MA that was presumably repurposed from the original elements but don't let that put you off. Purists may conceivably want to hold onto their old Criterion DVDs for the original soundtrack but this remix is both discrete and full bodied. Overall range is limited by the time it was recorded but the power is there across the sound field. ROBOCOP has both distinctive sound fx (the various chirping and whirring robotics for one thing) and a unique score by Basil Poledouris. Both aspects are well handled by this presentation.
Unlike previous almost barebones presentations ROBOCOP 2014 comes packed to the gills with extras both old and new.
The main attraction is the new feature - a conversation with the filmmakers recorded at a convention in 2012 at UCLA. The panel consisted of Paul Verhoeven, Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, producer Jon Davison, screenwriters Ed Neumaier and Miner and fx creator Phil Tippett. It's a rollicking chat with spirits high and everybody sharing great stories. ROBOCOP was an extraordinarily difficult shoot that involved 100+ degree shooting days, an often screaming director and massive interpersonal strife but time seems to have healed the wounds. Verhoeven's touching tribute to Weller at the end may even raise a tear in the hardened cynic.
Flesh and Steel: The Making of RoboCop from 2001 is a 90 minute documentary about the making of the film. Often shockingly honest this is a great look into a very troubled production where tempers ran high (Verhoeven and fx mastermind Rob Bottin fell out to the point of not speaking during production). To his credit Verhoeven accepts the blame for his share of the drama. A little calmer and wiser the mercurial Dutch director has calmed down since the 80's.
Beyond that we get a vintage making-of featurette, some deleted scenes, a storyboard with commentary featuring ED 209 and an almost 20 minute piece focusing on the fx of the era compared to what can be accomplished today. The RoboCop: Creating a Legend featurette focuses more on the actual construction of the suit.
My personal favorite of the supplements is the Villains of Old Detroit piece where Kurtwood Smith, Miguel Ferrer, Ronny Cox and Ray Wise dish about their roles and the shooting of the film. Kurtwood Smith's Verhoeven impersonation involving the famous "bitches leave" scene is utterly hysterical.
The last big extra is an audio commentary with Verhoeven, Neumeier and Jon Davison. These guys deliver a fun and informative listening experience. The camaraderie is strong and while they end up doubling a lot of info covered elsewhere on the bountiful supplements this remains an essential listen for fans.
Topping all this off we get the theatrical trailer, MGM's 90th anniversary reel, a TV spot and a very short Easter egg with Verhoeven.
The Final Word:
A brilliant and essential film ROBOCOP finally gets its proper due in this extras packed Blu ray package. There is a reason this was in the Criterion collection for many years rubbing shoulders with Fritz Lang and Hitchcock folks.
Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!