Annoyingly, when I look up titles on Amazon Prime on the television, I have to scroll to each letter. I use a Roku remote app that I downloaded to my phone, and every other app for which I use it brings up a keypad when searching its library. Disney +, Netflix, even the ESPN service all give you the convenience of modern technology. Given how innovative is Amazon Prime, I find this one little lapse in efficiency puzzling. Thus, every night during the Robin Hood slog, I would go to the search bar and start laboriously moving from one letter to the next. By the time we got to Robin Hood (2010), the disappointing Russell Crowe version, the old man I live with started hoping that I was going to land on RoboCop (1987) instead. The reason for this momentary false hope is the shared letters, and the list of suggested titles that come up when you start keying them. After five films of the outlaw of Sherwood Forest, I was ready for RoboCop as well. Hence, after some light hearted mobster fun with Get Shorty (1996) and Be Cool (2005), it was time for the cybernetic cop of a dystopian future Detroit. Actually, I should probably just say Detroit. . . .
RoboCop begins with a whirlwind set of fake commercials meant to introduce you to a Detroit in 2028, along with the rest of the world, on the brink of chaos. Increasingly, corporations are running things, and one of the biggest is the Motor City based Omni Consumer Products (OCP). With crime threatening to overwhelm the city, the government has turned to OCP to privatize the the police force. Their first solution is to build a robotic law enforcement machine called ED-209 (voiced by Jon Davison), the pet project of one of the company’s senior executives Dick Jones (Ronny Cox). In its maiden demonstration before the company’s chairman, known as the “Old Man” (Dan O’Herlihy), ED-209 malfunctions and riddles a company employee with bullets. This opens up the opportunity for a junior executive, Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer), to present his own plans for a cyborg cop that will become the title character. All he needs now is a test subject. Enter Alex Murphy (Peter Weller), a newly transferred police officer from the suburbs to Detroit’s dangerous inner city where fellow officers are killed in the line of duty seemingly daily. He is partnered with the veteran Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen). On their first patrol, they come across the most infamous criminal in town, Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith), pursuing him and his gang to their hideout in an abandoned factory. In the process, Alex is separated from Anne and falls victim to an ambush, which leaves him so full of bullet holes that he has one of his arms shot off. His corpse is theb donated to OCP, and he becomes what Bob had been looking for to try out RoboCop. Through Alex’s eyes we see a series of tests with various parts of his body are replaced with robot components, making him into the famous cyborg servant of the community. When he comes to, he is RoboCop and is ready to go, he becomes the newest member of the Detroit police force with no memory of his past. He is virtually impervious to bullets, runs on baby food, and has one goal: cleaning up the streets. This has an added layer of importance to OCP because they have a vision of basically remaking Detroit into a utopia, which means the criminal elements must be eliminated. Enjoying the success and notoriety of RoboCop is Bob Morton, who is not shy about gloating in front of Dick. Dick, in turn, vows revenge. He accomplishes this by hiring Clarence to murder Bob. While these corporate machinations go on, RoboCop begins remembering his past, particularly the face of the man who had murdered Alex. When he finally catches Clarence, the criminal informs RoboCop that he is working for Dick. Yet, when RoboCop goes to confront Dick, he finds that his programming prevents him from acting against an employee of OCP. As RoboCop struggles to leave, he finds that he has been labeled an enemy to the police force, and they begin shooting at him. He is rescued by his old partner Anne, who fills Alex in more about what has transpired since his death. At the same time, Dick gives Clarence a device to track RoboCop, and his gang find Alex and Anne at the same abandoned factory as earlier in the film. Regardless, they are able to turn the tables on Clarence and company, killing them all. Alex then returns to OCP headquarters, and interrupts their board meeting with the evidence of Dick’s shady dealings. The Old Man promptly fires Dick, giving Alex the opening needed to put a bullet in Dick, blasting him through the window. Reclaiming his name, Alex goes back to being a cop.
There is no getting around the extreme violence in RoboCop. Not to get into too much historical background, but such a cinematic response to crime is in keeping with the 1980s when American society as a whole seemed to be taking a tougher stance on deviant behavior. The thought was that if criminals were going to feel emboldened to carry out ever more destructive actions, drastic measures were needed to prevent this from happening. One can trace the veritable militarization of police forces across the country to this period, but that is a discussion for another time. In the context of a movie, there is a certain logic to such violence. Bad guy shoots at good guy, good guy shoots back, and the audience hopes that it is the bad guy that falls and not the good guy. What is interesting about this film is RoboCop’s three prime directives: serve the public trust, protect the innocent, and uphold the law. In carrying out these goals, RoboCop’s appears to have carte blanche to murder anyone violating them. In a movie like this one, it is not going to take the time to explain the moral dilemma or underlying reasons that led to this kind of society. People watch it for the action. I am also not here to argue against the privatization of anything. My Catholic Faith, fortunately, does not give me such qualms. What God asks of us is that we be charitable. Such acts are meant to be voluntary because that is part of faith. James 2:18 underscores this notion when it says, “. . . I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works.” The problem that the film ignores is that we can never ultimately determine guilt or innocence, at least not to the degree where we feel justified in killing another person. Granted, the teachings on war are a bit hazy, but this logic applies to why Catholics are against the death penalty. Every person is redeemable in God’s eyes. That hope is dashed when RoboCop comes along and kills them.
When you watch a movie like the original RoboCop, one of the worries is that the special effects are going to look cheesy to modern eyes. I am happy to report that is not totally the case. There are some moments where it shows its age, but overall it still looks pretty good. I have no idea how it stacks up to the remake, but I have heard that it is a different kind of bad. The bad in its predecessor is the over-the-top violence. At times, it is not easy to watch. Still, if you can get past the gore, there is a genuinely moral character in Alex for whom it is easy to root. He is incorruptible, and I appreciate this quality. Thus, consider this a recommendation with qualifications.