Criterion // 1987 // 102 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Chief Justice Sean McGinnis (Retired) // September 16th, 1999
Part man. Part machine. All cop. The future of law enforcement.
Robocop is perhaps one of the finest examples of over-the-top violence actually making an interesting socio/political statement. A rarity in this world, if there ever was one.
Paul Verhoeven's first American film is, in many ways, like the first edition in a series of related books. Also like that first in a series, it is in many ways better than all those editions to come. Verhoeven employs many of the same conventions we see in some of his later films such as Starship Troopers and Total Recall. He uses the "breaking news" stories to detail and supplement the on-screen happenings and employs an almost cartoonish, over-the-top violence to near comedic effect. But Robocop, being the first of his films to do so, is more original and to a degree much more effective and conveying its points.
Robocop tells the story of the triumph of the decade of greed. Released in the '80s, it tells the sad tale of corporate America run amok in search of profits at the expense of all things decent and true. Now, being a greedy bastard myself, I do not necessarily agree with the statement this film is trying to make, but it makes for excellent entertainment value precisely because the tone is never preachy.
Omni Consumer Products (OCP) is a gigantic corporation headquartered in Detroit. It has controlling interest in the military industrial complex, and many other facets of American industry. It even owns the recently privatized police department of Detroit. In an effort to clean up "Old Detroit" so construction can begin on a massive billion-dollar complex it plans t build there, a division of OCP has developed a robotic cop called Enforcement Droid 209 (ED-209). During a test in the boardroom, old ED disregards the fact that a willing subject has dropped his weapon and blows him away with his fully automatic cannons. The "Old Man" and head of OCP is "very disappointed" in the failure of the project, which will set the construction back months and cost the company at least "$50 million in interest payments alone." Unfortunately, no one feels bad for the poor schmuck who now looks like Swiss cheese.
Thankfully, a junior executive with designs on his boss's job pitches his Robocop plan to the Old Man immediately following the boardroom debacle and the project is greenlighted. All along the way, OCP has been reshuffling personnel in the police force to place the high-risk individuals in harms way in the Old Detroit neighborhood. The OCP team finds a willing "volunteer" for the program when Officer Murphy is blown to smithereens by a bunch of bad guys in an old factory. OCP rebuilds Murphy with a fully robotic body while keeping and reprogramming his policeman brain. The program is launched and Robocop is loosed upon the city streets, racking up points as a super-cop along the way.
Eventually, Robocop begins having flashbacks and remembers bits and pieces of his former life. This all leads to a showdown with the bad guys that killed Murphy the first time around. Though Robocop brings each member of the gang into custody, they are all let loose because the bad guys are controlled by OCP. The head bad guy admits as much which Robocop records in his digital hard drive and now OCP must rid the world of the metal menace. All this leads to no less than three key showdowns, which in the end prove justice can prevail, even if it isn't completely blind.
This version of Robocop is part of the Criterion Collection. As with nearly all the members of this elite group of films that are of recent vintage, this disc is loaded with extras. It includes "Shooting Robocop," a multimedia presentation of Paul M. Sammon's which first appeared in Cinefex Magazine and which shows some really cool technical stuff about the film. It also includes a storyboard section, which shows a storyboard to film comparison of the ED-209 debacle, as well as two other scenes that were storyboarded but not shot for the film. There is a teaser trailer (90 seconds) and a theatrical trailer (100 seconds), both of which are full screen. But best of all is the usual Criterion commentary track involving director Verhoeven, Co-writer Edward Neumeier, Executive Producer Jon Davison and Robocop Expert Paul M. Sammon. The best thing about Criterion special editions is the level of production put into their commentary tracks. Trust me. If you have never heard one of these, you do not know what you are missing but it is substantial. Perhaps best of all, the disc contains the fully restored version of the film, including several scenes that were cut from the film to avoid an X rating for violence back in 1987.
The video on this disc is far less than stellar. The 1.66:1 image suffers from quite a bit of grain at times, particularly early on in the scenes shot at the police station. Perhaps this is due to the smoky nature of the setting, or perhaps it is due to the usage of a spherical lens to 35mm negative. In any case, it was certainly grainier at times than I would have liked. Moreover, I would have preferred an anamorphic treatment here, which contrary to popular belief is possible (see New Line's Crash or Damage for evidence thereof). The black level was pretty solid and the colors were fairly well saturated, although they did tend to bleed a bit. My gut tells me this was a simple rehash of an old Criterion laserdisc transfer, which might explain some of these problems. I guess even Criterion isn't immune from the temptation of taking a shortcut every now and then. I mean why produce a new high-def master for every release, right? Why indeed! Ask Columbia why! I'm sure they have a pretty good answer.
The Dolby Surround mix is awfully good in many ways. The dialogue is clear and concise without being edgy or thin. The surrounds are used to good effect in many spots, one of the most effective being when the 6000 SUX throws a hubcap in the final chase sequence. Holy-moley, that thing nearly took my head off! But the big disappointment here is a distinct lack of bass utilization. Despite all the major explosions and huge gunfire and even rocket blasts, there is very little bass booming, sub rattling low frequency effects here. It sure would have been nice to have a re-done soundtrack for that reason alone. This movie certainly lends itself to that, even though Criterion (and I myself often) prefer the original soundtracks as the director intended.
One of the greatest directors of futuristic visions delivers a wallop with his very first American film. The most ironic part of this film is the trouble the producers had finding a director. The script for Robocop was read and turned down by nearly every American director known to man. Then, almost every foreign director turned it down. Verhoeven himself turned it down once. It was only at the urging of his wife that he re-read the script and (with a little direction from her) found a few additional layers he could work with. Thank God for that woman.
Both movie and disc are delightfully acquitted. Criterion shows off what it does best, delivering a decent transfer and sound on a great movie with an awesome set of extras. Highly recommended.
Review content copyright © 1999 Sean McGinnis; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.66:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 102 Minutes
Release Year: 1987
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* Audio Commentary
* Film-to-Storyboard Comparisons
* Illustrated Essay
* Theatrical Trailers
* Description of Director's Cut Differences