Big-budget action movies have seemed so bone-headed recently that the cleverness of Paul Verhoeven's "RoboCop" (citywide) may startle you.
Despite a level of lurid violence that may offend many, this movie has a motor humming inside. It's been assembled with ferocious, gleeful expertise, crammed with humor, cynicism and jolts of energy. In many ways, it's the best action movie of the year.
Very consciously, the plot line is sheer comic book. In a crumbling dystopic future civilization--Old Detroit, where the crime-ridden slums of the inner city will be blasted out to create the Ultimate Urban Development--the police force has been taken over by a private corporation: Security Concepts Inc., a subsidiary, naturally enough, of a conglomerate called OmniConsumer Products.
This buzzing warren of brash movers, clones and cagey old hacks has coughed up a new notion: automated law enforcement. Contentiously, patrician boss Jones (Ronny Cox) and back-stabbing young smoothie, Morton (Miguel Ferrer) generate rival plans. There's Jones' 7-foot mechanical bozo ED-219, which has a major glitch: It misreads data and kills the wrong people. And there's Morton's high security concept: joining the brain of an actual cop to a computer and cybernetic shell, a robot cop programmed for maximum protection.
In this case, head and heart come from an officer, Murphy (Peter Weller) who's been slaughtered by a sadistic gang of drug dealers. Stripped of his memories, and everything physical except his face--which is mounted on a web of wires and circuits--Murphy becomes a one-man crime stopper. He's a cyborg Superman, who, despite his hard shell, is ceaselessly tormented with scraps of memory: of his vanished family, of his female partner Lewis (Nancy Allen), and of the vicious, laughing creeps who killed him.
Writers Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner use parody shorthand to evoke a world in turbulent flux, sarcastically exaggerating our own. This mean, futuristic America is in a state of near anarchy on the bottom and mechanized decadence on the top: a cutthroat corporate oligarchy where every tendency toward dehumanization, centralization and mass media homogenization has gone hellishly out of control.
On "RoboCop's" slam-bam-thank-you-ma'am TV news, two absurdly smiley anchorpersons allot 10 crisp seconds apiece to subjects like global warfare and nationwide crime epidemics. Everything races maniacally; everything is linked in networks of hypocrisy, greed and amorality. When RoboCop-Murphy begins to poke at the rotten threads in this social fabric, he finds it unraveling, and all but strangling him--and the Monte Cristo revenge begins to corkscrew back against his employers.
Neumeier and Miner are like good comic-book satirists. They've taken the same archetypal revenge plot that's been done ad nauseam and figured out a twist that explodes it into new life: making the one-against-a-bunch hero an actual machine. And they also suggest that humanity, emotion, idealism--Murphy's qualities, which keep breaking through his circuits--are as vital as his own crusade against crime.
But what gives the movie its real smoke is Verhoeven's direction. In his first English-language movie, "Flesh & Blood," Verhoeven seemed hamstrung by his budget and part of his cast. Here, with a movie that probably means less to him personally--aided by Hollywood pros like RoboCop and ED-209 designers Rob Bottin and Phil Tippett--he does a sensational job.
Right from the early sequences, when he and cameraman Jost Vacano track, low-angle, through the "Hill Street Blues"-style station house bustle, Verhoeven's staging is electric and exhilarating. He encourages his actors--Cox, Ferrer, Allen, Dan O'Herlihy, Kurtwood Smith as the drug czar and especially Weller as Murphy--to lusty performances of full-out physicality.
Later in the bursts of carnage, which include unusually bloody killings and one villain dissolving in toxic waste, he tamps down the violence by keeping an edge of comic lunacy. He often flips rapidly through several contrasting moods--tart, sadistic or poignant--within a single short scene.
There's no doubt that some of "RoboCop" is in poor taste, and it's definitely not a film for children. (It deserves its sex-and-violence R.) But the excesses are somewhat justified by the modern, nauseating generic cliches it tears up with such flagrancy and gusto. Verhoeven's strong suits have always been visual energy and a Rabelaisan realism: a gutsy, jovial way of ripping through social systems. That's what links him to "RoboCop." As before, he deals with crushed illusions in a deceptive, violent, nearly insane world, but now, in fantasy, there's the possibility of a positive resolution.
In this comic-book world, with its terrifying excesses and crazy violence, that possibility, like a joke, cheers you up. It's good to see decent heroes fighting back, lies exposed, villains quivering, even old ED-209 tumbling like a clown. But more than anything, it's good--even in a fable--to see humanity try to break through a heinous system. That's the special charge of "RoboCop": a mass-audience movie that sucks up a lot of dubious modern cliches and, for once, makes them work.