RoboCop (1987)

Rating: B+

Dir: Paul Verhoeven
Star: Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Kurtwood Smith, Dan O’Herlihy

In some ways, this is a product of its era – late in the Reagan presidency, with free enterprise perhaps at its most rampant ever (it’s no surprise the same year, 1987, also gave us Wall Street). Yet its portrayal of the future hits its mark in some surprising ways, such as face-recognition software and GPS. Weller plays cop Murphy, transferred into the hell which is central Detroit – his path and that of partner Lewis (Allen) crosses that of psychopathic gangster Clarence Boddicker (Smith), and the results leave him fodder for the OCP corporation’s “Robocop” project, transforming him into an almost entirely-mechanical engine of law enforcement.

Which may have been the point of the transfer all along. OCP’s plan is to wipe Murphy’s memory, but that doesn’t quite work; there’s enough left for Lewis to suspect her partner survived, as he hunts those responsible for his corporeal death. Meanwhile, a power struggle inside OCP has left Robocop isolated, with the alternate ED-209 project now favoured over him. However, this is less about the plot (which, to be honest, is fairly simplistic, good vs. evil, despite Verhoeven’s efforts to add religious symbolism to the mix) than its attitude, mixing action, science-fiction and social satire. Despite number attempts, it has rarely been done better since, though screenwriter Ed Neumeier and Verhoeven would return to similar territory a few years later, with Starship Troopers.

It’s effective in all these areas, creating a world that’s virtually as plausible now as it was then, approaching 25 years ago. Weller’s performance is impressive, given how little of him is visible to work with – contrast, saw, Stallone in Judge Dredd – though Smith’s insanely evil villain perhaps steals the show. But again, it’s the setting in which the characters operate that makes it work. From crap TV shows (“I’d buy that for a dollar!”) through to the adverts for equally dubious products, it all combines to generate a fully-formed, hyperviolent society. Certainly among the best action movies of the eighties, a decade in which the genre probably enjoyed its golden-age.