Posts Tagged ‘Peter Weller’

As someone who became a teenager in the Eighties, it’s always a bit unpleasant to be reminded just how long ago that was – but one sign that we’re talking about what’s now a somewhat dim and distant past is the vagueness of many people’s memories about it. Another is the reappearance of films which, at the time, were slightly disreputable pieces of mainstream entertainment, but now revived as classics of their era.

I’m not saying that Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop doesn’t warrant such treatment, but it’s a bit startling to someone who recalls contemporary verdicts along the lines of ‘could be quite a good movie, but spoilt by some of the sickest violence I’ve ever seen’. I’m not sure what to make of the fact that not one but two people I mentioned it to remembered it as a Schwarzenegger movie – and one of them was scornfully corrected by someone else, declaring it actually starred Paul Weller.

Well, a version of RoboCop starring the Modfather would certainly be interesting, but also very different from the one we’ve got, which is headed by Peter Weller, and it was this one I saw back on the big screen recently. Verhoeven’s movie is set in a not-too-distant future instantly recognisable as an exaggerated version of the Eighties – TV news reports and fake commercials scattered throughout the movie play with topical concerns like Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ initiative, nuclear paranoia and consumerism.

Crime is running out of control in the city of Detroit and the recently part-privatised police department is struggling to cope. The department’s corporate backers at the OCP corporation have a plan to make money out of this by deploying military robots in support of human officers, but the scheme hits a snag when the prototype proves a touch trigger-happy and blows away a (relatively) innocent yuppy during a boardroom demonstration. The disgruntled head of OCP orders a back-up plan to be activated.

This leads us to the story of dedicated cop Alex Murphy (Weller), recently transferred to the toughest part of the city. Along with his partner Lewis (Nancy Allen), Murphy finds himself pursuing vicious gang boss Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith) into an abandoned factory. The two split up and after Lewis momentarily forgets basic police academy training (‘don’t look at the criminal’s todger’) she is knocked unconscious. Attempting to arrest the gang single-handed, Murphy is (literally) shot to pieces, and his remains whisked away by medical personnel…

Some time later someone new arrives at Murphy’s old precinct, operating as part of a classified OCP program. The new guy is also a dedicated cop, but one largely composed of shiny bullet-proof titanium. This is the product of the back-up plan: RoboCop, a cyborg police officer combining cutting-edge technology with human experience and judgement. But Lewis is pretty sure she knows where RoboCop’s human component came from – the question is, does anything of the original man’s personality survive beneath the armour plating?

I began to notice a while ago that RoboCop had become one of those films which, whenever I found it in progress on TV, I would – circumstances permitting – find myself sticking with to the end. If that’s not a mark of quality, then I don’t know what is, but sitting down and watching it in a theatre has only reinforced my opinion that this is a severely underrated classic.

The reasons why this film isn’t more widely appreciated are not that difficult to discern, but it’s interesting to compare RoboCop with the original Terminator, a film which enjoys healthy critical respect. They’re both hardware-driven SF action movies, and intensely violent in places, but I think the difference lies firstly in the fact that The Terminator has at least one pretty good sequel (whereas all the RoboCop follow-ups to date have been distinguished only by their mediocrity) and that James Cameron has carved out a niche for himself as a respected (i.e. financially successful) innovator and auteur with movies like Titanic and Avatar, while Paul Verhoeven has soiled his own reputation by doing movies like Basic Instinct and Showgirls.

RoboCop at least shows Verhoeven’s talent as a storyteller as well as his occasional penchant for wild excess. What’s most impressive is the way he turns the movie on a dime, executing remarkable changes in tone and mood while never putting a foot wrong. The initial ED-209 test sequence is astounding in its sudden eruption of graphic violence, but it’s played as vicious farce and remains very funny throughout. And yet only a few minutes later, the sequence in which Murphy is first maimed and then executed by Boddicker and his men – even more graphically – is genuinely, viscerally nasty and remains uncomfortable to watch even now.

The thing about RoboCop is that you’re never ever in doubt of which bits you should be laughing at, which bits you should be thrilled by, and which bits should move you. The movie has plenty of all three, often in close proximity, and Verhoeven’s choreography of them is exemplary. This is a much funnier film than I remembered, but perhaps the reason I overlooked the humour is the quality of the central story, which is a serious one, honestly done. Peter Weller may have been cast ‘due to his ability to convey pathos with his lower face’ (presumably this is just a fancy way of saying he has a sad-looking chin), but he delivers a brilliant mime performance once Murphy is incarcerated in the RoboCop armour. This combines with the direction and Basil Poledouris’ marvellous score to ensure you’re always aware of the character inside the suit: the movie is about Murphy reclaiming his human identity in a hellishly materialistic world, and the focus on this stops it from becoming just an ultra-violent cartoon like the sequels.

The structuring of the script is mostly flawless, with the only real issue being some unnecessary subplot activity. The result of this is that the man ultimately responsible for Murphy’s predicament is killed by someone else halfway through the film, resulting in Murphy’s final showdown being with a main villain he doesn’t have much of a personal beef with – given that the guy’s main crimes are a) being an unpleasantly ruthless corporate scumbag and b) killing another unpleasantly ruthless corporate scumbag, the script has to work quite hard to contrive a reason for Murphy to single him out for attention at all.

Still, the political and corporate satire is just another thing that marks RoboCop out as something different and special. It has become routine in some circles to accuse this film of ripping off the British comic Judge Dredd, with the addendum that this is one of the reasons why the Stallone Judge Dredd movie was so poor – all the best ideas had already been used.

Verhoeven himself admits the influence, and I suppose there’s a vague visual resemblence between RoboCop and Dredd to go with the peripheral wackiness and satire. You can certainly argue both operate in the same ‘fascism for liberals’ area. But even so, I think this is easily overstated. For one thing, as I’ve mentioned, RoboCop is about Murphy reclaiming his human identity – and inasmuch as Dredd’s ever had one, I suspect he would probably treat it as an impediment in the execution of his duties! The two characters are facing different directions, Murphy in a much more conventional one.

The same can be said of the wider movie. One of the most interesting things about the Dredd strip is the intellectual tension that it creates for the reader, given that the stories are generally about an unyielding enforcer for a brutal totalitarian autocracy – we shouldn’t be cheering for a character like this, and yet for some reason we still do. Judge Dredd‘s own brand of black humour and satire surely arises from this, but it has a distinctly different flavour from that in RoboCop.

This does not stop RoboCop from being a much more impressive movie than it appears at first glance. Verhoeven occasionally lets his love of going OTT get the better of him – the incidental transformation of a minor bad guy into a Troma-esque toxic waste mutant being the most obvious instance – but for the majority of the time this is a movie that knows exactly what it’s doing and is doing it extremely well. It may not have the punk edge or earnestness of The Terminator, but I would still say this is a wittier, funnier, more intelligent and arguably more moving film – perhaps this is the textbook case of a terrific original movie being slimed by having too many substandard follow-ups associated with it.

Certainly its reputation shows no signs of recovery. In the last year I’ve seen The Artist, Damsels in Distress, Touch of Evil and even Le Quattro Volte all playing to packed-out theatres at the Picturehouse. The revival of RoboCop – a one-off showing – attracted less than a dozen people, even after the company cunningly advertised it as showing in French (or possibly this was a printing error). Oh, the shame. Oh, the snobbery. Maybe next year’s remake will lead people to reassess this film properly – but, sadly, I doubt it.

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