RoboCop review – thrilling, subversive 80s masterpiece from Paul Verhoeven

Paul Verhoeven’s Dirty-Harry-Frankenstein’s-monster goes clanking and wheezing out into the Detroit streets once more, with his humungous exo-skeleton, thigh-mounted handgun case, killer-marionette walk and the balletically defined 45-degree head-swivels that precede a change in direction. This sci-fi action satire from 1987, wittily scripted by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner, is now rereleased in its original director’s cut, with the gruesome violence and its attendant black-comic queasiness restored.

But the gore was never, for me, entirely the point. RoboCop looks more than ever like Verhoeven’s masterpiece, a classic of 80s Hollywood and apart from everything else a brilliant commentary on the city of Detroit; hi-tech RoboCop is a harbinger of the decline of the automotive industry and the ruin-porn wasteland to come. And America’s automated “Star Wars” defence system of the Reagan age comes into discussion: in a throwaway aside, the film imagines it accidentally zapping Planet Earth, killing two former presidents as it does so.

Murphy (Peter Weller) is a cop in Detroit who is assigned to a new partner: Lewis (Nancy Allen). But Murphy is butchered and left for dead by a drug gang led by ruthless mobster Clarence (Kurtwood Smith), who is laundering his coke profits through a creepy corporation led by chilling CEO Mr Jones (Ronny Cox). Jones happens to be developing “RoboCop” technology for the city’s police department: a cyborg officer which will be cheaper to run and impossible to kill, but which needs a cop’s body. Poor Murphy is chosen as the first bionic officer. And so the terrible beauty of RoboCop is born.

When Murphy is in his comatose state, and then operated on by the tech boffins so that he can be reborn in robo-evolutionary form, there are some great point-of-view scenes as the white coated people peer callously down into this face. Then, of course, there are Murphy’s agonised memories of his own near-death, and of his wife and child, which the scientists have not been able to erase.

We get some outrageous 80s-style action explosions and people perpetually getting thrown through plate-glass windows (the fake sugar-glass was a novelty that action directors hadn’t yet got used to) but there are also some great touches: the ramp that leads from the station-house out into the street is so steep that the bodywork of every squad car bashes sparks out of the concrete on their way up.

The film is full of set pieces which have become classics: perhaps especially the boardroom scene at the very beginning, in which an early, quasi-quadruped version of RoboCop is demonstrated, and a luckless executive has to pretend he’s the surrendering robber who has only to throw down his weapon in front of the armed automaton to be peacefully arrested. The prototype doesn’t work out. There are droll clips from the TV news and ads for toys like the board game Nukem (a genuinely disturbing moment). RoboCop was obviously inspired by that other 80s classic, The Terminator – but The Terminator didn’t have this sophisticated, subversive element. The thrillingly impassive RoboCop still creates a frisson.

Robocop is released on 20 May in cinemas.