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Robocop

Year: 1987
Studio: Orion Pictures Corporation
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Writer: Edward Neumeier, Michael Miner
Cast: Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Ronny Cox, Miguel Ferrer, Kurtwood Smith, Ray Wise, Dan O'Herlihy

Far lesser directors have tried to blend action with satire and failed miserably, resulting in cack-handed, didactic efforts that careen clumsily between tones and don't serve either genre properly.

Verhoeven made something close to the perfect movie in Starship Troopers by packaging up a satire of the flag-waving militarism of the modern West in a special effects-laden adventure flick that stood up on the flash and pizzazz alone (just in case you missed the brilliant undercurrent). But he did it a decade before in this tale of Detroit in the near-future, overrun by crime and drugs.

When dedicated family man cop Alex Murphy (Weller) is gunned down by the gang of notorious hood Clarence Boddicker (Smith), he's pronounced dead soon after arriving at hospital.

But Omni Consumer Products has other plans for Murphy. They've launched a prototype cybernetic police officer, and Murphy's still-warm body is the missing part they need. They entomb him in titanium armour, give him the best computer-driven reflexes and firepower available and unleash him on Detroit where he cleans up the streets by taking a very hard line on crime.

It's only when Robocop puts his gun away and start investigating that he learns the corruption goes right to the top, with OCP CEO Dick Jones (Cox) in cahoots with Boddicker to create a crime empire on the back of the massive city reconstruction project the company is planning.

It's in OCP that Verhoeven and screenwriter Neumeier (who'd also write Starship Troopers) construct their satirical throughline. If nothing else, Robocop is a comment on the all-pervading power of The Market. With Detroit nearly bankrupt (there's an uneasy parallel as I write this review in the 2010s), the government has sold off almost all public services to survive, including the police force – a move governments the world over did with water, electricity, telecommunications and a host of other essential services.

In a world of Blackwater and McDonald's outlets on battleships, is it so far fetched to think a state desperately short of funding would contract a corporation to run the police? As expected, OCP runs the police force as a for-profit enterprise, just another tool in their market arsenal when they slash pensions and salaries and the unthinkable happens – the police go out of strike and the streets run red. Of course, it's exactly what OCP wants so they can foist their droid army on the city as a cheap police service in the shape of ED-209, a device that admittedly doesn't work but which OCP is already lined up to supply to the military.

What's even more realistic (ironically, for a movie in this genre) is the inner bastions of OCP itself. ED-209 is Jones' baby, but Robocop is the domain of junior executive Bob Morton (Ferrer), and the machines become pawns in a game of corporate one-upmanship as Morton tries to climb the corporate ladder – over Jones' head if necessary. This isn't a Tyrell Corporation-like overlord with a dark singular purpose, it's just a company populated with slick, amoral players who'll do anything to get ahead in their careers.

Of course if that's all too cerebral you can enjoy one of the most effective action films of the late 20th century for the surface gloss. Even though Americans are more comfortable with violence than sex on screen you can see their relative squeamishness when a European director takes the controls. Verhoeven doesn't pull any punches with the violence or blood and the effects are as good for their time as those of Starship Troopers would be ten years later. The stop motion animation of ED-209 by industry maven Phil Tippett is particularly brilliant for the pre-CGI era.

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