Monday, May 2, 2011

#23: RoboCop

(Paul Verhoeven, 1987)

Here's a broad, totally subjective and hyperbolic statement: RoboCop is the best action movie ever made. Let me finish.

Created at the peak of 80s movie excess, RoboCop is simultaneously a hilarious send-up of the genre and a perfect representation of what it does best, both sociologically and viscerally. As directed by Paul Verhoeven, the film takes on a delirious quality, whether it's the Kentucky Fried Movie-style commercials or the strangely haunting sequence in which we are privy to the moments which will eventually be erased from RoboCop's brain when he goes live. The film stands upon a foundation of hatred towards the decade that birthed it, skewering corporate culture, urban initiatives, and the quick fix. But it's also an insanely good time at the movies, complete with over-the-top gore effects which work both as psychological releases and as old-fashioned wtfs.

The film's main villain in terms of generating action is a secondary role player in the plot. Played extremely well by character actor (and That 70s Show dad) Kurtwood Smith, the rapist/cop killer bad guy on the loose is a classic 80s trope stolen from 70s films like Dirty Harry and perfected in early templates for the modern action film like 48 Hours. RoboCop manages to connect this crowd-pleasing baddie to the real villain in the film, the gloriously named Dick Jones, the vice president of the evil corporation at the center of the plot. This switch allows the film to have its shoot-em-up cake and eat it, too, by featuring plenty of action while focusing the animosity on the man behind the curtain.

This focus on the corporate bad guy helps the film deal with the two main political issues the film wants to explore: the merging of public good and private gain and the deterioration of American society in order to enrich the privileged. Both elements were front and center during the 80s in American politics and cinema. The key to dealing with serious issues like this in an action film is to seamlessly infuse them into the plot, and Dick Jones (along with the neighborhood where Murphy lived, the new city that's going to be built, and bombed out alternate world Detroit) helps the film do this very successfully. The film also works on a psychological level though, in a pseudo-Cronenberg way, by keeping at its emotional core the story of a man murdered and pulled from his family being reborn as a cyborg - but, you know, that can love. It manages to never seem sappy in this regard by avoiding making a point about it in even the subtle ways Cronenberg seeks to subvert our conventions, instead saving this aspect of the film for a character arc that ties the film's plot together and keeps viewers invested.

There are few action films that generate solid, original action moments, and even fewer that manage to balance superb action with an intelligent commentary (Verhoeven has made two more of these: Total Recall and the underrated Starship Troopers). The film manages to do this so effortlessly that it seems especially frustrating that so many of the alternatives cannot even pretend to attempt it. There have been other superb action films in the modern era - John Woo's The Killer and Hard Boiled, Terminator 2, and The Matrix come to mind - but none of these movies succeed in every area in which the action film thrives: political or sociological statement, character evolution, vicious satire, and dirty fun fuck-shit-up-ability. In contemporary film, the action movie has evolved into a special effects extravaganza that has allowed comic book movies to come to the forefront thanks to new special effects capabilities. But the action genre is still fundamentally about larger-than-life situations that can be related to an every day existence. It is the fundamental spirit of the action movie that is so in line with RoboCop, and it's what makes the film as relevant, thrilling, and provocative today as when it was first released.

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